Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith

Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith
Published: NewCon Press, 2011
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, British Fantasy Society Award

The Book:

Hellequin, last of the HawkEye military elite, is desperate to escape the legacy of Soul Food, the miraculous plant food that leeched the soil, destroyed his family, and instigated a bloody civil war. For a man awaiting the inevitable madness brought on by his enforced biomorph implant, there’s only one choice. Run away with the circus…

Drifting above a poisoned landscape, Cyber Circus and her exotic acrobats and bioengineered freaks bring a welcome splash of colour into folk’s drab lives. None more so than escaped courtesan turned-dancer Desirous Nim. When Nim’s freedom and her very life are threatened, Hellequin is forced to fight again. But, even united, will the weird troupe and their strange skills be enough to save Nim and keep their home aloft? That’s assuming, of course, that Zan City’s Blood Worms, mute stowaways, or the swarms don’t manage to bring them down first…

Welcome to the greatest show on Sore Earth!

The book also features: “Black Sunday” – a free-standing but associated novelette. A tale of desperation, incorporating drought, science, giant burrowing machines, rural magic, racial tension and sensuality in the 1930s Kansas dustbowl.”

This title caught my eye after it was nominated for the BSFA award, and I saw it was available as an inexpensive e-book release.  (I recently went on a possibly ill-advised spending spree on physical books, so I’m trying to read through what I have before I buy any more.)  Cyber Circus is Kim Lakin-Smith’s second novel, the first being Tourniquet.

My Thoughts:

Cyber Circus begins with a lot of action and little explanation.  In fact, there are some things about the world that are left deliberately unclear throughout the novel.  For instance, I was never completely sure how or even if the Sore Earth is related to the 1930s US dustbowl.  It seems like a completely fantastical setting, with various exotic species (Sirinese, Jeridians, Showmaniese, Hoppers…) and bioengineered creatures (the Scuttlers, Pig Heart, Hellequin, Nim…). However, the presence of some familiar livestock animals and goods hint towards a connection to our Earth.  It’s also unclear whether Cyber Circus was aiming for science fiction, fantasy, or something in between.  On one hand, Hellequin’s Hawkeye machinery, Desirous Nim’s epidermal lighting, and Pig Heart’s grafted animal parts appear to be the result of advanced technology.  On the other hand, there’s an entire subplot about a mysterious female stowaway that seems to be based in magic.  The setting of Cyber Circus has a lot of intriguing elements, but I never felt like I had enough information to get much of a sense of the world as a whole.

The story did a little too much head-hopping for my taste, switching between the viewpoints of many different characters.  For me, this constant switching had the effect of making all of the characters feel secondary.   Each of the inhabitants of the circus had an interesting shtick, as one might expect, but I never really felt like I grew to know or care about them.  Each of them also had an unspeakably tragic past, and the continuing stream of ‘tortured pasts’ eventually began to feel a little over-the-top.  I appreciated the idea of a band of severely mistreated misfits helping each other survive in a damaged world, but there’s a point past which excessive fictional tragedy just starts seeming a little trite.

In conjunction with piling on the tragedy, Cyber Circus also has a lot of sex and violence.  Several of the characters pasts involve forced bioengineering, the murder of their loved ones, and/or rape.  However, though there are many references to rape, I appreciated that the only sex scenes explicitly described are consensual.  Even so, these scenes sometimes seemed a little gratuitous with respect to plot and characterization.  The many, lengthy, bloody action sequences were difficult for me to get into, since I didn’t feel much of a connection to the characters.  The violence often seemed a bit like an action video game—the point was to be entertainingly flashy.

The plot itself is relatively simple.  Desirous Nim, a beautiful woman who was forced into prostitution, had escaped to the circus.  The story began some amount of time later, when they ran across her former pimp, D’Angelus.  He became obsessed with the idea of getting her back, and the basic plot became the story of the circus fleeing the pimp.  I was not really sold by D’Angelus’s motives.  I can accept that he felt a desire to reclaim a potentially profitable prostitute, but he seemed to have been doing fine financially after losing her.  Therefore, it never really made sense to me how he flung himself and his subordinates after the circus with all the subtlety and lack of self-preservation of D&D goblins.  There are some interesting subplots going on between the circus characters throughout the chase, but for me everything was overshadowed by the poorly supported actions of the villain.    

The novella at the end, “Black Sunday”, shows the entirety of the novel in a different context by elaborating on the origins of a particularly enigmatic character in the novel.  I kind of wished that the information provided in “Black Sunday” could have been incorporated into the novel somehow, since it would have given context for that character’s behavior and provided very interesting hints about the nature of the world of Sore Earth.   

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Sore Earth of Cyber Circus is a grim world, with strange technology and animals, several different species (or races?), and a deeply damaged earth.  However, I didn’t ever feel like I got enough pieces of the Sore Earth puzzle to get a real understanding of the place. Each of the poor souls in the Cyber Circus had their own distinct, extremely tragedy-laden histories, but the frequent point-of-view changes made me feel distanced from them.  This distance left me feeling a little uninterested in the many, lengthy action sequences throughout the story.  I was also a little disappointed in the simplicity of the overarching plot and the unexplained mania of the villain.  The novella included at the end provides an interesting new context with which to view the book, but I couldn’t help wishing that some of that information could have been incorporated in the story of the novel itself.    

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