I have oft spoken at cons about the importance of clean language.
The written word is simply a medium. For the most part, you want the words to leave the page and enter the brain with as little resistance as possible; the actual act of looking at the sentence and putting together the meaning should be a nigh-invisible act for your reader.
Voss Foster is a writer who has mastered this art. He has perhaps the cleanest language of any book I have reviewed on this site, and it’s a skill I deeply envy. This is going to be a book I point other people at to demonstrate what really good, clean language looks like. Reading Foster’s writing is an osmotic process, and I blew through the 164 pages of this book in little to no time.
So, that said, let’s talk about plot. Zirkua Fantastic is about art, the sacrifices we make for our art, and the power it has. The circus itself is a mystical entity of dedicated performers, each of whom willingly sacrifice a portion of their life for their art. This seems sinister at first, but what Foster pulls off is a way of making that sacrifice seem creepy and sinister while simultaneously heroic. Underneath all of this, of course, is a ritual that binds a chaotic god, and the art of the performers is the thing that holds him in check. That said, it also means the performers themselves are bound, mandated to continue to perform.
There’s a kind of beautiful metaphor here. It is the art of the circus that holds back the god of chaos – a god whose freedom will mean war, strife, and terror for all humanity. I’m a fan of art-as-power metaphors, and Foster gives us a strong one. Humanity has the choice between a travelling circus and war; Foster is not-so-subtly suggesting that maybe the world should choose more circuses. It’s a hell of a statement.
Underneath all of this we have the romance. It’s a good story – the magically bound performer is in love with one of the vendors who follow the Zirkua about. There’s nothing terribly outstanding about this romance (I do not count the fact that it is homosexual to be abnormal in the least).
Which brings us to the part where I talk a little about the bad stuff. I mentioned above that Foster is the master of osmotic writing. His words are hard to notice, and that’s a truly great thing. That said, there are times in a book where you want to slow the reader down and let them breathe.
I’ll use the opening moment as an example. In this, our protagonist Tobias is juggling some hoops. Foster conveys this information with his usual deftness; it takes three lines or so to describe. Then, he moves on to the next piece of information. In a book that’s really about the power and necessity of art and sacrifice, that opening basically lets us know that Tobias juggles some hoops. He slips, isn’t too good at it, but recovers.
I want more from this scene. Starting mid-performance is fine, but not with the flourish. Let us feel Tobias’s breath rise and fall as the hoops move through the air, let us rejoice with him in the pure exultation of his art, let us feel with him when he slips, and let us cheer for him when he gets it right. Don’t just tell us what happens; really let us feel the pace of the performace. After all, the book is about the power of this performance. It’s central, vital to the plot. The reader should feel that power right from the start.
The overall story is conveyed skillfully, but there are simply moments (like that) where a scene that I know should be vivid and intense simply moves by like so much more text.
All that said, Foster is growing as an artist, and Zirkua Fantastic proves it. This book isn’t perfect, but it’s worth killing a summer afternoon with.