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Review: Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith

reading, books
Lakin-Smith's debut novel, Cyber Circus is a brilliant piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction that not only creates a wonderful troupe of characters in an original world, it also applies a very old style - the Western - to a cobbled-together combination of multiple genres with additional elements aplenty thrown in from all sorts of places.  This magpie-like mix of the shinies should seem like it is a mismatched cobbling together of lots of different bits, but the style and panache brought to the table by Lakin-Smith (and the simple, stripped-down bareness lent by the novella, rather than novel-length, format) allow it to be a much more streamlined synthesis...

The plot is relatively basic, and over a longer novel, would probably be stretched thin.  Instead, Cyber Circus keeps it compact and simple, and allows for a huge amount of unpacking over the course of the novel, of characters' backstories, of the world, and even the introduction and inclusion of other elements. Herb and his troupe start the novel performing a show, when D'Angelus, a villainous brothel-owner, launches an attempt to recapture the Desirous Nim, a technologically enhanced woman who used to be one of his prostitutes.  As the reader quickly gathers, the initial attempt is unsuccessful, and D'Angelus is repulsed but not defeated absolutely, and the rest of the novel sees he and his mercenary crew pursue the Cyber Circus across the blasted, bleak landscape of the Sore Earth.  This gives Lakin-Smith an excuse to tell us about this strange dystopian post-apocalyptic world, introducing us to various places (all of which feel like Mos Eisley), developing the characters, and really using the aesthetics of steampunk, Western and planetary romance while the plot plays itself out on a compact schedule.  Cyber Circus is pacy and fast, with the action scenes incredibly well told and fast, drawing the reader in and making us feel like we're there, and the strangeness of the circus coming through even as its basic mundanity - these people are still human, with all the self-deception and pettiness and goodness that this entails - shines through.

It's that mundanity of character that really makes this novella shine.  Cyber Circus makes every member of its central cast other than Herb something other than simply human - the augmented Hellequin, a soldier called a Hawkeye for his cybernetic implants which improve his combat and tactical abilities; the Desirous Nim, augmented to glow and shine as well as be more sensuous for men; Lulu, the ladyboy whose augmentation appears to be essentially sex reassignment surgery; Pig Heart, with his porcine alterations; or Rust, the wolf girl who is at most semi-civilised.  Yet every one of these is still human and relates to the rest of the cast as a human, with all the elements that this entails; so we see love and betrayal, we see hidden pasts come out, we see loyalty and fear and hatred.  Lakin-Smith's greatest strength in this novella is to make all these seem real; these strange, other characters still move and affect us by their humanity, even if that humanity is at one remove to our own, because they seem so real and their emotions so effectively portrayed.

In sum, then, Cyber Circus works incredibly well; feeling like a dystopian Firefly in some respects, and in others like nothing else on Earth, Lakin-Smith's novella is a short, punchy and powerful piece of fiction that manages to pack an incredible amount into a brief page count, and is a work I am more than happy to recommend to you.

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