Review: 'The Scarlet Circus: The Jane Yolen Circus Collection' by Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen is a legend, so it's always a challenge to write an intro to a review on one of her books. I hardly need to convince anyone to read her books, surely! So this time I'm, or rather Jane Yolen, has added something a little extra. She very kindly wrote a poem to go along with the review, called 'Substitute'. Do give that a read and then join me below for the review.
Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/14/2023
Publisher: Tachyon Publications

The Scarlet Circus, the fourth volume in Yolen’s award-winning short fiction series brings you passionate treasures and unexpected transformations. This bewitching assemblage, with an original introduction from Brandon Sanderson, is an ideal read for anyone who appreciates witty, compelling, and classic romantic fantasy.

A rakish fairy meets the real Juliet behind Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. A jewelry artist travels to the past to meet a successful silver-smith. The addled crew of a ship at sea discovers a mysterious merman. More than one ignored princess finds her match in the most unlikely men.

From ecstasy to tragedy, with love blossoming shyly, love at first sight, and even love borne of practical necessity—beloved fantasist Jane Yolen’s newest collection celebrates romance in all its glory.

I used to think I don't do romance. Or rather, Capital-R Romance. I think this is a leftover from my "I'm not like other girls"-phase. Thankfully I left that phase behind once I realised that it was mostly internalised misogyny. And yet, I continued to struggle a little with the Romance genre. Perhaps I felt weird reading it, considering I'm not really a dating or relationship person. Perhaps it also felt like something that would be too sensitive for me, make me feel like I should be pursuing a capital-L Love! But I have loved everything I've read by Jane Yolen, so I decided to one again place myself into her capable hands with The Scarlet Circus. If like myself you find love a little intimidating, I can now assure you that this is a lovely collection of stories. It is not just about romantic love, about having to find a partner and sticking with them forever or being a failure; The Scarlet Circus also highlights other forms of love. There is the love between parents and their children, between siblings, between friends, between a person and their culture, or a person and their profession. I felt like Yolen was celebrating not just romance but also the embracing of love in all aspects of your life. As a romance-shy person I must also say that Yolen perhaps got me a little more interested in trying out relationships, just for the fun of it.

It would be impossible to give a good idea of each of the stories and poems in this collection, so I will just highlight a few I adored. 'Unicorn Tapestry' is the third story and the one that made me fully settle into the collection. Poor Princess Marian is the plain one of the three sisters and also not especially skilled at tapestry-making. She has begrudgingly accepted that this is just how it is, that there is no grand love and epic adventure set aside for her, so when she is granted a wish she only half-heartedly believes it might come true. But magic, much like life and love, has ways of finding you. This is a delightful story. 'A Ghost of an Affair' is a must-read for anyone who liked Outlander (the TV show) and is ready to be sad. 'Dark Seed, Dark Stone', set in a kind of northern medieval past, was a story about love in a very different way. Bryony loves her people, her family (maybe not her step-mother), and is loyal to her king. Does this story feature bone-melting romance? No. But it does feature love in a more foundational way, perhaps, and I'm still intrigued by it. 'Dragonfield' is perhaps one of the most extensive stories and features literally everything I could ask for from independent heroines, to dragons, to lore, to ironic takes on heroism, and more. Truly the stand-out for me. 'The Sea-Man' got me on multiple fronts. As a Dutch person I enjoyed the Dutch main characters and history, but as a lover of Del Toro's The Shape of Water I also appreciated the way the story took on communication across species and the universal presence of love. 'Memoirs of a Bottle Djinn' truly is a loveletter to love, very different in tone from the other stories and yet fully alive. If you could spend eternity with your beloved, even if it meant living in a bottle, would you? 

I've reviewed a few of Jane Yolen's books now and I always wonder whether I will actually think of something new to say when it comes to her writing. And in fact, I always do. In the case of The Scarlet Circus I was truly amazed by the variety of genre-influences she brings into her fairy-tale writing. Some of the stories are more "traditional" in that they take their inspiration from established classic themes or tropes, such as the djinn or Romeo and Juliet or curses to be lifted by true love. Others, however, work with time-travel elements, with critiques on genre staples like the overblown hero, and with complex ideas of duty and love. There is even a story that is just footnotes to a story, which my academic heart loved! There is never a dull moment in this collection and quite a few of the stories have remained with me long after reading them the first time. They'll flash into my mind and make me go back to The Scarlet Circus to relive them in full. I also once again enjoyed the poems collected at the end of the book. The poems feel a little darker, or more vulnerable, than the stories which makes for a nice contrast. It's like a nice sweetbitter grapefruit tart after a sumptuous meal, if that makes sense. It clears the palate and brings some freshness in. Perhaps most heartbreakingly beautiful is the poem Yolen wrote for her current partner, whom she met after the loss of her husband. There is something beautiful to love returning, to accepting new love without replacing the previous love. She also discusses this moment in her life in the introduction and it added quite some pathos and weight to some of the lighter aspects of the stories.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed The Scarlet Circus and found many more gems of Yolen's to treasure and carry with me. This collection has an inventiveness that is belied by the ease of Yolen's writing. I can't wait to read more of her short stories through Tachyon's collection series.


  1. Sounds fascinating. Glad you enjoyed all the stories.

    My review of a book about love between a stray dog and its several owners.


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