Vaudeville is a setting that seems to lend itself well to both science fiction and fantasy. There has been a number of very successful stories in this space with circus settings. There seems to be something appealing about joining a found family in a new job where differences are celebrated and anything in the imagination is possible. Now that I say it out loud it’s pretty obvious why the setting works. The Circus Infinite, by Khan Wong, is the newest entry into the writing tradition, and it does a great job balancing fun and seriousness.
Jes is a wanted fugitive with rare gravity controlling ESP who has escaped your typical monstrous science fiction testing facility with a plan to hide among the many planets that make up the known universe. As a mix of a human and an alien species, he is seen as an outcast, belonging to neither sphere. He makes his way to the best place for a mixed-species fugitive to blend in: the pleasure moon where everyone just wants to be lost in the party. He soon finds a new place to belong that can utilize his special powers for entertainment, but it doesn’t take long for a local crime boss to start extorting Jes for his power or risk being exposed. As Jes gets caught up in espionage, torture, and demolition, he and his friends must find a way to bring the mobster down.
The elements of this book are very straightforward in a nice, simple, and clean sort of way. The themes revolve around found family, not fitting in with your culture, protecting those you love, finding a place to belong, and asexuality. The characters are all fun, with Jes and his numerous circus friends all having nice chemistry that makes reading feel like relaxing in a warm Friendsgiving setting. The worldbuilding is straightforward but functional. I liked learning about the various cultures and ideals of the planets and their complicated politics that govern access and cultural bigotry between peoples. There were a few nuggets of insight littered here and there that felt like it gave the text more weight than just a slice of life story.
However, there were also things that worked a little less well – but nothing deal-breaking. The prose could sometimes feel halting and awkward. Characters occasionally vomit out their emotional state with a little prodding to push development along, and it felt unnatural in some conversations. Additionally, the Asexual identity subplot (while I liked it a lot and takes up a significant portion of the book) didn’t mesh as well as it could have. It didn’t feel well transposed into the science fiction setting—references felt more from our world than the one Wong built, and the prose noticeably shifted in style. Whenever Wong talked about Jes’ Ace identity, I felt like I was reading a literary fiction story in a real-world setting that didn’t match the tone and vibe of his sci-fi world. That being said, the Ace subplot was great and I loved it. I am so happy to see more representation in books; it just could have been melded a little better.
Overall The Circus Infinite is a solid book. It has low stakes with a plotline that still has excitement and depth. Jes is an enjoyable character with some added representation that is nice to see in the SFF genre. Give it a shot if you are keen on an intergalactic circus.
Rating: The Circus Infinite – 7.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.