Set in a near-future England where the poorest people in the land are forced to sell their children to a tra
velling circus – to perform at the mercy of hungry lions, sabotaged high wires and a demonic ringmaster. The ruling class visit the circus as an escape from their structured, high-achieving lives – pure entertainment with a bloodthirsty edge. Ben, the teenage son of a draconian government minister, visits the circus for the first time and falls instantly in love with Hoshiko, a young performer. They come from harshly different worlds – but must join together to escape the circus and put an end to its brutal sport.
This book caught my eye when I heard people talking about it on Twitter. The premise combined with the gorgeous cover art really sucked me in and I was really desperate to read it. Even though I’d read the description and a few blogger reviews, this book was still completely unlike what I thought it would be. It’s a dark and brutal story about a future England in which ‘pure’ English people are the ruling elite, and everyone not completely English is a ‘dreg’ and forced to live in service to them. This idea is topical at the moment with all that’s been going on recently, and I think it was a really fascinating take on the subject. It’s handled very well and makes for a really gripping read.
The book is split into alternating points of view, between Ben one of the pures, who’s mother is actually the Minister for dreg control and Hoshiko, a young girl forced to perform in the dreg circus, which pures flock to every night in order to watch them before dangerous stunts and die. I really loved the way it was split between the two characters, because not only does it give you two points of view to the story, but it’s really interesting to see how they are both trapped by their lives – Hoshiko because she’s forced to perform for people every night with very little food, doesn’t get to see her family and is treated horribly. While Ben lives in a nice house and has things much better off, he’s also trapped and isn’t allowed to express how he feels, or suggest that what his mother is doing is horrific.
There are plenty of shocking moments in this book, and it kept me hooked for hours on end. My other half remarked on several occasions that it must be a bloody good book because I hadn’t moved for long stretches of time because I was utterly desperate to know what happens next. Hoshiko and Ben are both brilliant characters, they’re complex and flawed people, but they’re deeply likeable and you definitely root for them the whole way through. They’re joined by a whole host of really interesting characters, and I was particularly intrigued by Silvio – the ringmaster of the circus. He has a very dark past and Barker uses this to really show how it affects him as an adult.
The other thing I really loved was the way in which the Circus were like a family, despite the horrible conditions forced upon them. They look after each other, help each other when they’re injured and share a hope that things will get better in the future. It’s a really beautiful subplot in the story, showing the importance of family even in the toughest of situations.
Along with all these fabulous characters the glittering circus is a great setting, and it really comes alive in Barker’s prose. There’s lots of action and a fair bit of gore to keep you hooked and wanting more. This book is a really fantastic example of dystopian YA and I loved it from beginning to end. If you’re looking for the next big YA book this summer, this is definitely the one.