Early Review: The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett
Orbit/Feb. 21st, 2012
Thanks to Orbit for providing a review copy

George Carole ran away from home to join the Vaudeville circuit. Sixteen years old, uncommonly gifted at the piano, he falls in with a strange troupe — even for Vaudeville.

Under the watchful eye of the enigmatic figure of Silenus, George comes to realize that the members of the troupe are more than they appear to be. And their travels have a purpose that runs deeper than entertainment.

George must uncover the mysteries of Silenus’s Company before it is too late. He is already entangled in their web of secrets and if he doesn’t learn where they are taking him, he may never find his way out.

At 16, George Carole was raised by his grandmother, has never known his mother or father, and has been traveling with a vaudeville troupe, playing piano rather wonderfully. He has a good idea of who his father might be, and has been trying to catch up with the Silenus troupe, if only to catch a glimpse of the man that could possibly be his dad. He finally manages to catch up with them and catch a performance. He’s enchanted, especially with the beautiful acrobat Colette, and fascinated with Silenus. After leaving the performance, he encounters the grey men (seriously creepy), who also seem to be after the Silenus troupe, but for much different reasons than George. It’s when George attempts to warn the troupe of the grey men’s presence that the real adventure, and terror, begins.

See, George has a little something special inside of him, and it’s part of what makes him so valuable to Silenus and his troupe, because the troupe is much, much more than just a vaudeville act, as George will soon discover. The Troupe is, at its heart, George’s coming of age story, but it’s also a far-reaching magical epic. Set in a time when vaudeville and minstrel shows were popular, and horse and carriages still lingered, The Troupe is a book that you want to read without distraction, because there are quite a few big ideas in play. Don’t let that scare you. The author manages to weave horror elements (wolves in human clothing and the grey men), with not so traditional fantasy elements (some rather terrifying fairies), and even southern gothic into a rich tapestry that you’ll want to savor, bit by bit. There is a song that was lost when man and earth was created (The First Song), and Silenus’ troupe has been gathering bits of it back together, in hopes of saving our world. Each town they stop in becomes just a little bit better when the troupe sings this haunting song. If the song is entirely forgotten, the rips that have already appeared in the fabric of our reality will get bigger, and very, very bad things will begin to come through. George has some of this song inside him, and throughout the book, it becomes clearer and clearer just how important George is to our world.

George will frustrate you, and you’ll fall in love with him at the same time. He’s just a kid, who sometimes fancies himself much worldlier than he really is, and is painfully naive. For someone so young to shoulder such a huge burden is enormous, and much of the book is about George learning just how to do that, as well as getting to know the father he never knew. Silenus is a force of nature and his command of his troupe and relationships with its members is also a very big part of this novel. Many elements of the Silenus troupe are strange and terrifying, such as Kingsley the puppeteer and his rather creepy, otherworldly puppets, and some are beautiful, such as the dancer Colette and even Franny, who lifts objects that no one her size should be able to lift. Silenus’ silent and gentle companion Stanley (who communicates via chalkboard) is a joy, and the interplay between the troupe members is subtle, intricate, and sometimes heartbreaking, as is Silenus’ rough, fierce love for his troupe. As George learns more and more about his place in this frightening new world, and also of the delicate balance that the troupe helps maintain, he also realizes what’s at stake, and losing the song may mean losing everything he cherishes. The author has a gift for atmosphere, mystery, and imagery, and manages some jaw dropping twists that I didn’t see coming. The Troupe was as much of an emotional journey as it was a fantasy for me, and I cherished every bit. Haunting, terrifying, and achingly beautiful, The Troupe is a book to be savored, and it will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. Very highly recommended.