Reviewed by Tori
Gilbert Blake has been on his own for a very long time. A gifted magician; he uses his talents to fleece the unsuspecting. When he goes too far and brings the attention of the local crime boss down upon himself, Gilbert barely escapes with his life and finds himself saved by a ragtag group of circus performers. They offer him a choice-they will protect him from harm and give him the home and family he has always wanted, he just has to agree to join their trope. And he can never, ever leave. Gilbert agrees out of necessity and soon finds himself the newest member of The Circus of the Damned.
As Gilbert’s past come back to haunt him and bring danger to the circus, he finds himself slowly falling for the mysterious ringmaster, Jesse. Life, love, and loss all circle around Gilbert and his new family and unless Gilbert can find a way to fix it all…the devil may claim everything Gilbert loves.
The Circus of the Damned is the second book in Cornelia Grey’s Deal With the Devil series. You do not need to read the first book to read this one though fans will recognise the devil, Farfarello, from book one. An M/M romance fantasy with a healthy dose of historical and steampunk attributes. A bold and interesting premise speaks of a damned circus whose unusual performers promise their soul to the devil in exchange for a safe place to exist. A circus made up of people whose extraordinary gifts and peculiarities make them suspect in the world. Gray attempts to paint a dark fantasy with vivid imaginary as flavors of unscrupulous deeds and acts set the base for her world. There is so much promise here it’s almost unbearable.
Unfortunately, the premise is far more ambitious than the story itself. Beautifully written with a flair for the dramatic, the purple prose and an overabundance of descriptive terms becomes suffocating and drags the story down on more than one occasion. It also doesn’t allow for an in-depth examination of any one particular subplot. In Grey’s efforts to create the perfect atmosphere for her creations, the storyline itself suffers.
The story starts meeting Gilbert Blake. Gilbert Blake is a con man. He uses his gifts of magic to swindle people but only so that he and his pet mouse, Emilia, can survive. Abandoned as a child due to his gifts, he has a layer of vulnerability that speaks of his need to be accepted for who he is though that same need scares him. Temperamental and prone to fits of anger, Gilbert tries very hard to maintain his illusion of normality. When his latest con lands him in hot water, he makes his deal with the circus ringmaster, Jesse, believing that it is just one more con and he can get out of it anytime. Of course, when you make a deal with the devil, the devil is in the details. He tries multiple times to leave only to find himself right back at the circus the moment he falls asleep. When he finally accepts his fate, he begins to see that this maybe his chance to have the family, love, and acceptance he’s always secretly wanted.
Jesse, the ringmaster of the circus, is a bit of an enigma. He made the original deal with a devil that put The Circus of the Damned in motion. In the beginning, we see a mercurial hard man who gives the impression he doesn’t suffer fools lightly. As the story progresses, Jesse loses his hard edges and we see a submissive man who regrets the deal he made so many years ago. Heartfelt and melancholy, he struggles to keep his family safe while dealing with the fact that everyone he loves dies around him.
A cast of eccentric and dramatic secondary characters gives some sense of depth and continuance to the story though Grey doesn’t really dig down to the meat of them. Well developed descriptions give us the physical aspects of the cast but we aren’t given any emotional details. What are their stories? What made them take the deal? How did they come to find Jesse or vice versa? The one personal story we do get was from a character that we have very minimal interaction with. The antagonists of the story do not present as well as the rest. The crime lord’s intentions are established but the resolution is anti climatic. He remains a caricature who never achieves the status of evil we are made to think he is. Same for the devil, Farfarello, who made the original deal with Jesse. His status remains up in the air as hints are made to an old love affair between the devil and Jesse. We are given only enough to wonder at their relationship but not any concrete answers to how or why this original deal came into play. Their history is left in the dark even though the base of the story is built upon it.
The romance is low key. Its evolution attempts to allow Gilbert and Jesse to reveal the hidden aspects of themselves to the reader and each other though. Sexy, steamy, and very lush in terms of sexuality, this couple blazes in bed. Chemistry wise they are well matched but the connection was just not made for me. I could see the attraction clearly but I never felt the shift from lust to love. It’s more of an affair than an actual romance. Their copulation happens rather fast. There is one particular scene involving magic “hands” that will leave you feeling a little breathless, proving that no matter what issues Grey has in the mechanics of the story, she certainly doesn’t lack any imagination in the romance department. WHEW.
A happy for now ending leads us to believe there will be more told from this world in the future. While I enjoyed aspects of the book, I wasn’t to keen on the overall execution. There were just too many loose ties left blowing in the wind with too many unanswered questions.