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Cabaret of Monsters by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Cabaret of Monsters by Tansy Rayner Roberts
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Book Name: Cabaret of Monsters
Author: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: November 14, 2018

I read this novella after trying out Kickstarter for the first time to back Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court bundle.

I’m a sucker for an original setting, so when the world of the Creature Court was described as a Romanesque, Roaring 20s style city where shapeshifters engage in a nightly battle with the sky, I was pretty much hooked then and there.

As it happens, the war against the sky is more of a looming backdrop to this particular story than the main event. It fuels the plot and many characters are caught up in it, but (aside from a brief and bloodily beautiful opening scene) we tend to find them in the moments between battles, as they love and deceive and recover from life-threatening injuries. We never get a blow by blow account of this hidden war, even as we follow its participants from elegant parties to smoky bars and from towering rooftops to hidden dungeons.

This leaves us with many questions. Why does the sky keep trying to invade the earth? Why is it only secretive shapeshifters that fight it? Why don’t they set themselves up as heroes and saviours instead of concealing their sacrifices from the mundane populace? Is a gattopardo a lion or a leopard?

The story itself is mostly about people and their relationships and has several layers to it. There’s the tumultuous theatrical troupe who live a life of bohemian poverty, falling in and out of bed with one another, trading gossip and partying all night long. This group includes Ruby-red, who throws at least as many tantrums as the troupe throws shows; Christophe, a calmer sort who sounds as though he could have been played by a young Stephen Fry; Sunshine, a kindly and seductive individual of no particular gender; and Himself, the young and charismatic stage-master who is devoted to his craft.

This merry company is joined by a wandering journalist and viewpoint character called Evie, who claims to be chasing gossip for the newspapers but has her own secretive agenda.

Then there’s the Creature Court, the people who defend the city of Aufleur from hostile stars by turning into wolves, leopards, bears, swarms of weasels, crows, and other predatory creatures. Lords of the Court can also take on a ‘lord-shape’, which is scarcely defined in the story apart from being big, armoured and spiky. The Court has its own viewpoint character – Livilla, who hides burning ambitions and can turn into two reasonably sized wolves or one very unreasonably sized wolf. Livilla is a Lord in the Creature Court and has her own retainers who help her in battle and may go so far as to heal her with their own flesh and blood. She also has her own past with the theatre that sets her on a collision course with the players. Other key characters include Garnet, the cruel and mercurial king (Power and Majesty, to use the in-universe term) of the Court and one of Livilla’s lovers, and Poet, an enigmatic Lord who also happens to be Himself, master of the acting troupe.

Between and behind these present-day affairs are the winding and sometimes intersecting stories of the characters’ past exploits, whether backstage at an opera or in the teeth of the hidden war.

Based on this story, I would describe Rayner Roberts as a world painter, rather than a worldbuilder. She throws her readers into the middle of her setting, with all of its unique conceits and unfamiliar words, seduces them with scandal and sex and cocktail parties and dares them to keep up as the story bounds off at its own pace.

Don’t expect any hints from a god-like narrator or the comforting presence of a glossary to help you make sense of the concepts and terms being thrown at you, some of which are from the real world and some of which have been invented or re-purposed for this story alone. Still, it’s easy enough to get the gist of what’s going on, even if it might take you a while to nail down what some of the more obscure words mean. Knowledge of Latin or Italian helps, telling you that nox means night, stellar means star and so on. (Opera or theatrical knowledge probably helps too, I wouldn’t know.) Disentangling courtesi from columbines takes a bit more time though and I still felt as though there were nuances to these words that were escaping me, a testament perhaps, to the vibrant confidence of Rayner Roberts’ voice.

Buoying up that confidence is a zest for life and for performance. Cabaret of Monsters is a feast for the senses, replete with heady wines, impassioned kisses, oyster cocktails and little cakes to go with coffee. We might never fully understand the plots of the various shows the troupe put on, but we get to bask in the reflected glory of angels and saints and masked monsters and are left with the impression that whatever is going on, it is all rather splendid. The blending of Latin words and festivals with Cabaret style clothing and theatrical lifestyles is pretty seamless and I love the originality on display here.

Rayner Roberts’ writing style is lively and conversational, she doesn’t shy away from grown-up words or a bit of satire here and there either. Evie’s attempts to get away with wearing trousers in a city still mired in traditional gender roles adds a pleasant dash of feminist commentary to proceedings. (Though, among the Creature Court and the bohemian set at least, alternative sexualities and genders seem to be well represented and completely accepted in Aufleur, which is always nice to see.) There are plenty of pretty descriptions and well-turned phrases here, but they don’t slow down the pace.

Since this is a novella there isn’t space to really dig into the setting, but neither is there any time for the story to outstay its welcome or for its unique ideas to lose their glamour. Whether the shine would stay on throughout a longer series of novels I don’t know, but I’m keenly anticipating the chance to find out. No one else is telling stories quite like this and, in the increasingly saturated fantasy fiction market, that alone is worth the price of admission.

If you want a story that can sweep you along for a few thrilling hours then set you down again, you should read this novella. If you like unusual settings or want an antidote to the standard epic fantasy tales of dark lords and chosen ones, or gritty mercenaries striding through fallen worlds, then you should read this novella. If you like flappers, theatre, shapeshifters, mysterious plots, deceptive characters or romantic intrigue then (you guessed it) pick up this book!

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One Comment

  1. Richard Marpole says:

    Hey all. It’s too late, (as far as I know), too back the Creature Court Kickstarter yourself. But you can buy Cabaret of Monsters from Amazon in digital and paperback form. Some of Tansy Rayner Roberts books are also available from an Australian company called ‘Booktopia’.

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