Buy The Circus Rose
Special price $17.51 Regular price: $18.77
Publisher: Clarion Books
Reviewer: Melissa on June 16, 2020
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I love fairy tale retellings, in general, and “Snow White and Rose Red” was a story I read and reread often as a child, so as soon as I heard about The Circus Rose by Betsy Cornwell, I knew I had to read it. It’s told from the dual POVs of Rosie, an out lesbian who is neurodivergent, and her twin sister Ivory, who has always been attracted to boys, but she comes to realize that she’s on the Bi+ / pansexual spectrum after meeting Tam, a nonbinary fey who joins the circus.
This queer retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red,” in which Ivory and Rosie battle evil religious extremists to save their both their loves and their chosen circus family, should be on your to be read list—seriously. This book is breathtakingly beautiful, and I think that the mediocre reviews on Goodreads come down to not getting it into the hands of enough queer reviewers and readers being unfamiliar with the fairy tale on which it was based and mistaking it for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Give it a chance, you won’t be disappointed.
Rosie’s sections are all written in free verse, which just beg to be read aloud. Rosie is a performer—the highlight of The Circus Rose’s act—and also has the tendency to withdraw inside herself, so the format suits her voice. Ivory’s sections in the narrative, however, are written in prose, which works for her logical, ordered character. Unlike her sister, she prefers to be behind the scenes as a stagehand or at engineering school. Don’t think for a second that her story is logical to the point that it’s devoid of beauty and passion.
If you’re looking for a very queer YA book, you need to pick this one up. Betsy Cornwell is an out bisexual woman, and she uses both she and they pronouns, so it’s an own voices book. In addition to Rosie and Ivory’s explicit queerness, Bear, Rosie’s companion, is a princess stuck in the body of a male bear, so a lot of Bear’s story relates to the experience of trans people. Rosie and Ivory’s mama isn’t necessarily queer—we only know about her attraction to me—but both she and the fey community in general are all represented as polyamorous. Finally, Tam use the new-to-me pronouns fe and fer to demonstrate fer gender as neither solely male nor female, but something in between.
Whereas many queer narratives only show the queer characters holding hands with their significant other or kissing at the very end of the book, I particularly liked how sex positive it is. Ivory begins to explore her sexual fluidity with Tam early on, and in doing so, the kissing takes on a passion that I’ve not often seen in any YA novel. Moreover, later, there is a scene between them that takes place in the stacks of a library run by the Brethren—a religious organization that thinks everything about the circus people is sinful—and Ivory knows in her heart that she’s done nothing wrong, even though she’s aware that the Brethren wouldn’t see it the same way. Cornwell creates a safe space for all readers, especially queer ones, that is completely devoid of the shame that Christianity puts on people around their sexuality.
In The Circus Rose, the main conflict is between the circus itself, which serves as a chosen family for many of the performers and stagehands, and the Brethren, who deem everything and anything one would find at the circus as sinful. To show this as wrong, Cornwell turns dichotomy between light and dark, white and black, on its head. Yes, the Brethren are still represented in light, but it’s given a sinister and clinical overtone. By contrast, the reds, blacks, and shadows of the circus have a protective quality for its inhabitants. Rosie, for example, needs the darkness to heal after an event damages her health, something that she couldn’t do in the bright lights of the hospital setting.
The Circus Rose is a beautiful, queer story that will create a safe space for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community, even those who are possibly doubly oppressed, like Tam was by his non-human status, whether you are familiar with “Snow White and Rose Red” or not.
Buy The Circus Rose today and save 6% off the regular price!