Review: 'The Midnight Circus' by Jane Yolen

I had my first experience with Jane Yolen last year February, which I myself consider a bit odd. Here I was, let's say twenty years ago, a child in love with fairy tales, folklore, and the spooky and scary, and yet not one adult ever considered recommending Jane Yolen to me. It is an offense I shall not forget lightly. However, I have tried to make up for it recently and my latest mea culpa took the form of reading The Midnight Circus. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 10/1/2020
Publisher: Tachyon Publications

“Jane Yolen has done it again.” —Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked

In the newest short fiction collection of this World Fantasy Award-winning series, beloved fantasy author Jane Yolen’s dark side has fully emerged. Her vivid, startling, and thrilling tales and related poems of the supernatural—from icy-hearted witches to sometimes-innocent shapeshifters—reveal a classic storyteller at the height of her powers.

In these sixteen stories, Central Park becomes a carnival where you can—but probably shouldn’t—transform into a wild beast. The Red Sea will be deadly to cross due to a plague of voracious angels. Meanwhile, the South Pole is no place for even a good man, regardless of whether he is living or dead.

Wicked, solemn, and chilling, the circus is ready for your visit— just don’t arrive late.

Jane Yolen doesn't consider herself a horror writer, not even a particularly scary one. And yet her stories bristle with the unknown, the edge of something not quite safe, the supernatural. It is not about the blood or the glint of moonlight on a knife. It's not about the abject sadness of a matchstick girl freezing to death on Christmas eve. Yolen's stories that are scary are so because they recognize the emotional weight of it all. No need for guts spilling out here! Yolen's The Midnight Circus retains her traditional magical beauty while she pulls back the curtain on the darkness backstage.

It's hard to pick favourites from such a great collection of stories but there were a few that truly stood out to me. 'The Weaver of Tomorrow' is a great opener, setting the tone with a spunky heroine and a sense of doom. 'Become a Warrior' feels distant, as if you're watching the story unfold from behind a sheet of glass, and yet it is starkly wild and beautiful. 'Requiem Antarctica' is a great story about Scott and his doomed mission to Antarctica, with a Gothic edge thrown in. It's not until the very end that the horror sets in. 'Inscription' was another favourite, in which Yolen takes inspiration from a rock inscription found during her walks in Scotland and turns it into a story of magic and betrayal, with a feisty heroine to boot. 'Wilding' has a very different tone to the rest, futuristic, almost Sci-Fi, which took a little bit of getting used to, but I found it very interesting. Not every stories will be a hit with the reader, as is always the case with short story collections. As these stories are also taken from throughout Yolen's long writing career, they reflect different periods and styles. Two stories stood out to me in particular, 'Little Red' and 'Great Grey'. Both stories are very interesting, but should also really come with their own trigger-warnings. Neither feels truly complete and as I almost wish she would have let them simmer for a bit longer. 

Many of Yolen's stories are also tied to her Jewish heritage and they are some of the most heartfelt, frightening and beautiful stories in The Midnight Circus. The generational trauma, the fear and fact of persecution, it all comes through, especially in 'The Snatchers' and 'Names'. In the former she shines a light on the existence of the khapers, who would kidnap young Jewish boys for Russian army service. It's a haunting tale of persecution and horror that shows how this history is not left behind once one moves. It follows generations. The same theme runs through 'Names' in which the names of Holocaust victims are passed down as an almost physical reminder of the horror of the concentration camps. They are starkly beautiful stories that will send a chill down your spine, not just because they are well written but because the banality of human evil is truly the most terrifying thing.

Jane Yolen is an excellent writer. She makes story-writing look simple, each story flowing naturally as if it had always been that way. Some of her stories do seem more suitable for a younger age, yet the themes and ideas keep them relevant for all. As always, each story is accompanied by a poem and a short explanation. I love this insight into Yolen's process and especially into how she collaborates with other artists and authors. Some of her poems have turned into music, while some of her stories turned into collaborative novels. It's this evolutionary process that is fascinating to me and I like that Yolen keeps showing her work. I would prefer to see these poems and descriptions accompany each tale, rather than be collected at the back. I appreciate this might break up the unity of the collection, but now they are a bit dis-connected as you only really engage with them once you've read all the stories. This may be different when reading a physical copy of the book, however.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Jane Yolen is a master story writer. Although not all stories with resonate with every reader, there is a gem or three in The Midnight Circus for everyone. Get your ticket, join the queue, and get ready for beauty, horror, sadness and beauty.


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