Rosie’s annoyed that her grandmother won’t share her past with her. The last thing she does before she dies is give Rosie a doll, one that she must always keep with her to keep her safe. Wanting to know more, Rosie sneaks into the cabin where she died, finding a letter moments before the floor caves in. Next thing she knows she’s in the middle of a mysterious circus and no one wants to help her get home.

Joanne Owen weaves together aspects of Slavic folklore and the circus into her own unique mythology. Each section of the story opens with part of a fairy tale; that of a doll which keeps its owner safe. The dolls become a common motif throughout both stories.

The fairy-tale also included Baba Yaga, a well-known witch in Slavic mythology. I’m not sure if Mother Matushka was meant to be a re-working of Baba Yaga or not. Before Rosie crosses the threshold, there are plenty of references to chickens and eggs, so I was expecting there to be more to this connection. There were some similarities but then her name seems to suggest she is more connected to the Matryoshka dolls. Plus she’s not chomping down on children’s bones. I did have a look to see if the dolls were connected to any folklore, but was disappointed to find they are relatively modern (1890).

Whilst I thought the weaving of the fairy tale was wonderful, Rosie’s character development left a lot to be desired. On one hand, fairy tale characters aren’t usually well developed, but the action of modernising her, and giving her a family and real world fears, suggested that she wasn’t meant to be a cardboard cut-out. She made me feel like the book is aimed at a much younger audience.

Rosie uses the word crazy so liberally. Her mother is crazy for being annoyed at her. A horse that bolted is crazy. The acts in the circus are crazy. She feels mad-crazy. With first person narrative, it could just be an affectation of hers, but it’s hard to separate from the writing.

So I loved the fairy-tale feeling and the world-building. For the most part, it felt like it could have been a traditional folk tale. I just didn’t care at all for Rosie and found her presence a bit irritating. Plus she was amazingly slow at picking up on stuff, but not in a way that she was just buying into a magical world. I worked out what the circus stood for quite early on and I didn’t feel it needed Rosie not understanding for so long. Again, it’s like she was much younger than she was.

Circus of the Unseen is published by Hot Key Books and is available now in paperback and ebook formats. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Also reviewed @ Readaraptor

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.