Circus of the Unseen by Joanne Owen
Hot Key Books, 2015. ISBN 9781471401145
(Age: 8-12) Recommended. If we haven't already guessed from the cover design, the moment we begin the prologue we are aware that something strange and fantastical will happen in this story. Owen does not disappoint. The main story of Rosie's descent into a macabre, carnivalesque world is interwoven with the retelling of the Russian folktale of Vasilisa and Baba Yaga.
Rosie's adventure begins with a seemingly ordinary visit to her Grandmother's cottage and it is ironically this ordinariness and that 'everything was as it should be' p7 that alerts the reader to potential for the extraordinary. Rosie's strong relationship with her grandmother is established and we are introduced to the mystery of her past life in Poland about which Rosie knows nothing. It is in her quest for answers that Rosie, like Alice, falls down the 'rabbit hole' into a strange and eerie place.
She initially finds herself on a Carousel festooned with wild creatures and even odder, a 3 faced lady. She is then transported to an old time circus with 'flaming torches, flickering lanterns, ropes and wires, giant seesaws, high boards and tanks of bubbling water.' p63. But it's the people she meets who become integral to Rosie's stay and ultimately her decision about her own future.
There are Lola and Coco (the little girl grannies) Scarlet, Fabian, Accordienka and many others all of whom have extraordinary abilities in their chosen act. But it is Mother Matushka who holds all the power in this strange place: the power of night and day, the power to control the birds, the power to keep her 'children'. But does she have the power to keep Rosie?
From the beginning Rosie's, and the reader's, mind are abuzz with questions and it is the desire to find the answers that keep the pages tuning.
Owen makes many allusions to traditional fairy tales and effectively creates a world of swamps, craters, mist and strange horseman, but amongst it all is the touch of humanity that is the keystone of all good fairy tales.