a review by Evie Kendal
Utopian Circus is the second installment of the series CITY: a literary concerto by self-published author, C. Sean McGee. Like McGee’s other texts, this one is free to download on his website, with print copies available for sale. For a self-published book the quality of the binding, cover and paper is quite good and the font size and line spacing used makes the text easy to read. As such, it is worth purchasing the physical book. (I will confess that although I love the flexibility that e-reading affords, I still believe a hard copy book has a certain aura that an e-book can never duplicate…even a mass market paperback!)
Utopian Circus begins with two old ladies – and old here means very old – who are preparing to skin the body of a naked young man they discovered floating downstream in a river. When they cut open the black bag the body has been sealed in they are shocked to discover not only that the body is so young – “Less than a hundred?” – but also that the man is still alive. While this state of affairs does not change their goal of skinning him and wearing his “skin dress” it does make it rather difficult to achieve when he gets up and runs away into the bushes, taking their prized scalpel with him. At this point the ladies voice their concerns that “the gods” will be angry with them, as the necessity of “changing faces” is one of their rules. They believe such a perfect skin as this young man’s, one not ravaged by the “famine” which is attacking the minds and bodies of the populace, must have been a gift or a message from the gods. Afraid of the ramifications of their failure, the women pursue the escaped young man.
The idea of skinning people and wearing their faces appears very briefly at the end of Book 1 of the series, AR1S1NGFALL, and information from this previous book is assumed knowledge in Utopian Circus. Both books open with unusual scenes that do not completely make sense at the start of the novel, but which come to be explained through a gradual revealing of the elements of the dystopian fictional world. The sense of mystery was perhaps a little more intense at the beginning of AR1S1NGFALL, however it is reasonable to expect that a sequel will not be quite so alienating for the reader (or “cognitively estranging” as Darko Suvin would have it) as a first novel. Nevertheless, there is plenty to keep the reader guessing and there are only a few instances in the text where exposition is excessive.
Alongside the story of the immortal “Elemental Ladies” (or “Facers”) the narrative picks up from where AR1S1NGFALL left off and follows several characters from The Nest, the indoctrination facility that served as the setting for Book 1. However, there is a significant difference in flavour between these installments, with AR1S1NGFALL having a 1940’s classic science fiction dystopia feel, while Utopian Circus reads very much like a Grimm’s fairy tale (complete with evil queens and disturbing violence). Comparing the technical elements of both books, while there are fewer typographical errors and better overall presentation in Utopian Circus, grammar and punctuation are still an issue.
Due to the presence of various adult themes, Utopian Circus is obviously unsuitable for children, however it is also unlikely to appeal to squeamish adults. It is most likely to find its audience amongst fans of dystopian science fiction and fantasy. Utopian Circus is also not an entry-level book into the CITY series, so readers intending to pick it up will need to commit to reading the previous novel first.