Magic and gender are explored in Betsy Cornwell's ambitious The Circus Rose, a reimagining of "Snow White and Rose Red" set against the vibrant backdrop of a circus.
In Esting City, Ivory and Rosie are twins--with different fathers. Raised in the Circus Rose, a traveling show, the sisters, along with their mysterious bear companion, are inseparable. Their mother is the bearded lady and ringmistress; their friends are contortionists, dancing boys and other performers. The twins are part of the act, too: Rosie swings up high on the trapeze while Ivory is the stagehand. "She shines, and the world basks in her light," Ivory reflects, "I stick to the shadows." But changes are happening in Esting City and the circus is in danger. The Brethren, religious fundamentalists led by the unscrupulous Brother Carey, are gaining social power and condemn anything that strays from the "light." The Circus Rose is deemed sinful. Ivory, Rosie and Bear must face the evil priest to save the circus and their found family.
The Circus Rose features dual points of view, Rosie's passages in dreamy verse and Ivory's in grounded prose. Cornwell's evocative storytelling begs to be reread and, though the twins are of different races and Cornwell's construction of race could have been stronger, she still assiduously interrogates outdated social constructs. Ivory's love interest, Tam, the show's Fey magician, is described as "being neither male nor female, like all Fey," while Ivory and Rosie's discoveries of self are heightened by accepting and celebrating what makes them "othered." Readers might find the plot's time jumps jarring, but they will cheer for the tender love stories and Rosie's belief that "the human heart/ is a resilient beast." --Zoraida Córdova, freelance book reviewer