Windy Van Hooten’s Circus of the Fantasticals – rather casually known as the Spark Circus – is like no other circus you’ve heard of. Yes, including that other very famous literary magic circus. Echoing the first line aside, The first bright thing it is not an honor Night circus any more than it is a book about Ringling Bros. Circus, like anything with a history, exists in a continuum. And if it’s a really good circus, it also stands on its own.
But not alone. Circus Spark belongs to three women: Rin, short for Ringmaster, whose old name no one uses; Odette, her trapeze artist wife; and Mauve, their beloved friend. The circus is their life’s work; the circus is their home. And like everything, it faces an almost unimaginable threat.
The first bright thing is largely, but not entirely, set in 1926, which is key for several reasons. One is that it is between two world wars. The second, less plot-focused reason is that the circus—or at least this particular circus—is a great place to escape to when you don’t fit in. Maybe it’s because of your gender presentation, your sexuality, the color of your skin—or maybe it’s because you have a Spark.
Sparks exist here not just in the sense of a spark of ambition or talent, but as an honest spark of magic. At some point during World War I, some people got Sparks. Rin can move through the world in space and time. Odette can heal or otherwise change the body. Lila can see all time – history, present, future.
You can probably see how these talents can combine into one hell of a circus—and that’s not even counting shapeshifters, illusionists, and indestructible children. All real, no illusion. And all in the service of showing one special person every night that the world is full of magic. The circus is a creation of hope and change and doing the right thing in a difficult world.
Not everyone with the Spark sees their power as a way to heal and bring hope. In the darkness behind the glow of the big roof is another circus with black tents and red detailing. One that trades in darkness, terror, fear and misery. And one is led by a man looking for Rin.
Dawson tells this story in flashbacks and forwards. One story begins on a beach at war when a girl shows up and saves a terrified soldier without thinking. The next starts when Rin starts the circus. How the two stories are connected is never quite in doubt, but Dawson slowly and subtly weaves the threads together, showing how the circus king and the Ringmaster mirror each other, and portrays with powerful honesty and empathy how an abusive relationship can destroy a person. A young man named Edward can literally make people do what he says, but the worst thing he does is turn a woman against herself. When that mean, cutting voice in your head is your own, how do you get over it?
There’s a lot packed into this debut novel, which moves between the intimate relationships between Odette, Rin, and Mauve—and the baby Sparks they pick up along the way—and the larger picture of the world outside of Rin’s perfect trailer home. Dawson is at his strongest in the relationships the women have, build and struggle with, especially when it comes to Rin and Jo, a wayward, incredibly talented teenager who joins the circus with her brother. Jo questions everything, for better or for worse—and it’s for better or for worse, especially when the king of the circus approaches.
But there’s also a bigger-picture story, about an impending war that three women see on their way to the future. They see what’s happening, and they see who’s dying, and they’re desperate to stop it, especially as they begin to understand how unstoppable it is. Separated from her mother against her wishes, Rin struggles to remember her Jewish heritage, which surfaces as the story reaches its final confrontation. She cares about traditions and the story she tells her circus and their audience. And of course to herself.
At times the scale of the war can get a little lost in the circus story; at times, Dawson leans too far into a serious style that overexplains the emotional rhythms that are already clearly evident in the characters’ actions and dialogue. But at best The first bright thing he feels like he’s creating circus folklore for himself—a world where all kinds of outcasts can hide in plain sight, where family is what you choose and who you love; and where storytelling is an important part of hope. He is the wandering cousin of GennaRose Nethercott thistlewhich also unfolds a story of memory, love and perseverance aboard a magically traveling home.
When asked in a recent interview to describe his book in five words, Dawson he said“Magic circus attempts tikkun olam. From my limited understanding, tikkun olam is a Jewish concept of trying to fix or make the world a better place. The first bright thing explores this idea beautifully, but the book’s greatest strength is the way Dawson shows how necessary but difficult work this is. Some things cannot be changed and changing one life is not the same as changing the whole future. But that one gift is still important.
The first bright thing published by Tor Books.