Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.
But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change
Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.
And soon, George is as well.
The Troupe is epic fantasy at its finest.
I know what you’re thinking. It doesn’t sound like epic fantasy. I’ve seen it in the bookshop – it’s, like, 500 pages? That’s not epic fantasy! It’s a cerebral thriller; a gothic horror; a celebration in Americana; an urban fantasy; circuspunk. Whatever one of those labels makes you feel better, I can assure you – it’s epic fantasy aswell.
I first heard about The Troupe last year from a number of prominent bloggers, like Justin at Staffer’s Book Review, Jared at Pornokitsch and The Mad Hatter’s Booktionary, who all raved about this novel. It’s taken me the best part of a year to get round to reading The Troupe and I can honestly say my biggest regret is not reading it sooner and missing out on the potential to nominate it for every genre award going. It’s that good.
At its simplest, The Troupe can be boiled down to two major themes. Like the best epic fantasy it deals with the age old battle of Good vs Evil. And trust me when I say the scale of this battle is on a par with the chunkiest epic fantasies – and all in around 500 pages. The second theme, like all good literature, is something more personal and more particular to the story Bennett is telling: the relationship between father and son.
In George, Bennett has created a main character that feels real. The story revolves around him because George thinks the world revolves around him. George is the archetypal 16 year old boy: pig-headed, temperamental, a know-it-all little shit and pretty clever to boot. But not as clever as he thinks he is. George is socially introverted, but a streak of pure determination runs through him. In George’s Father, Heironomo Silenus, there is in many ways a polar opposite. Silenus is an extrovert and a showman. He functions in different ways to George, but it’s that sense of drive (in Silenus’ case, the drive to keep the secrets of the troupe) that connects them. Every time there’s friction between the two characters, Bennett manages to remind us that they share commonalities, and the ultimate denouement of the novel gives an entirely new perspective on events, making a reread almost a requirement.
The style (of writing, of setting, of tone and more) here is reminiscent of Gaiman, but ultimately it’s Bennett’s own. A style and flow which should make him a name to remember down the line. Hopefully, a name where in a future review I can compare the style to Bennett and everyone knows immediately who I’m talking about. The Vaudevillian setting is something entirely new (for me, at least) and the sheer sense of wonder and explorations of the bizarre, horrific and ethereal that Bennett explores are tantalising and perhaps the one element of the novel I’d love to have seen more of.
It’s epic fantasy, but with a genuinely original twist. Robert Jackson Bennett’s take on the time-spanning war of good and evil is framed by a quieter story about relationships which brings the fantastic into the 21st century with a genuinely new spin. There really is something here for everyone: a bridge between the new and the familiar, the mundane and the fantastic, father and son. The Troupe gets the highest recommendation I can give – read it now.