The Circus of Ghosts

Written by Barbara Ewing
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

New York in the 1840s. Cordelia Preston and her daughter, Gwenlliam, are on the run. Cordelia is a professional mesmerist and (back in England) a murder suspect.

Gwenlliam is a talented acrobat – and the granddaughter of the brutal Duke of Llannefydd. The duke is determined to have Gwenlliam under his thumb and to silence Cordelia – permanently. He sends the ambitious and avaricious Mr Doveribbon to track them down. Surely America, the land of the free, will shelter them? Perhaps not. Silas P. Swift’s Amazing Circus employs them, but he loves Cordelia’s notoriety. It’s good for business. How can the women escape Mr Doveribbon’s notice when Silas is determined to trumpet Cordelia’s history? New York offers opportunities for the hard-working, but it also has a dangerous underbelly ruled by vicious city gangs as Cordelia and Gwenlliam soon discover.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Circus of Ghosts. I loved the depiction of New York as an exciting city continually reinventing itself. Ewing has obviously done her research, but there are no visible information dumps. It’s unobtrusively there, giving the story that unmistakable feeling of authenticity.

The book reminds me of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus both in its scope and its vivid exuberance. Ewing shares Carter’s interest in how vulnerable people create families out of the human flotsam and jetsam around them. There is tragedy as well as love and humour in the women’s ‘family’; they must either face their deepest fears, learn and move on or be destroyed. The book whooshes the reader along, and there’s never a dull moment. It’s exciting and thought-provoking, and it warms the heart. What more could one ask? Highly recommended.