Warning: Though I don’t believe this review contains spoilers, it was almost impossible to write it without posing some possible hints. I’ve done my best to offer no answers, but if you’re spoiler adverse, I cannot guarantee you won’t posit answers that may have some truth to them. That said, the novella plays on this aspect of our natures, so your proposed answers may just as easily be false.
This novella is very dark. It looks at the extremes of groups who enforce strict covenants on their members with harsh penalties. However, they are not allowed to apply a death penalty. That’s where the Death Circus comes in. It’s an organization designed to dispose of those unable to be dealt with inside the group, and must guarantee the death of any they take.
The Longview is working within the system for its own aims (or rather its owner’s aims) which are kept hidden from everyone and so a matter for speculation rather than knowledge. That things are not what they appear to be is hinted at throughout the story, leaving the reader to make their own guesses as to whether things are as dark and harsh as they seem. This is an odd way to add an element of hope, especially since, until you reach the end, there’s no way to know if your guesses have even a measure of truth or if the hope is a misguided attempt at lightening the darkness, and I’m not going to tell you which way it goes.
It is the last that is the strength of the novella. The reader is not alone in seeking hope and purpose in the darkness. Enter the Death Circus focuses around Kagen, a man rescued from the very circumstances he now enables as a crewmember of a death circus ship. He’s driven to work his way up through the ranks as fast as he can, to prove himself worthy of captaining the ship someday. He wants to leave his past behind, but cannot, and tries to educate new crew members in the truth of what they are involved in so they can understand what it is they do. It’s a harsh double standard where he’s unhappy with what he does but it’s the best of the worst options, the worst being his own death.
This is clearly the beginning of a series (the “Episode 1” is another clue). Not all the story lines brought into play are resolved in this piece, but that’s the way of things with a series. As an introduction to this side of Cadence Drake’s universe, and a story with feelers out to future tales, the novella serves its purpose while also raising interesting questions about just what the goals of this ship and its owner are. It’s a harsh vision of the lengths people will go to to control others, but offers insights into what individuals like Kagen can and will do to undermine that control, bringing light, in a small way, into darkness through building awareness.
I enjoyed how this novella made me question the assumptions that lay behind it and see uncomfortable parallels with our own world. It is most definitely a thinking work. My only quibble is that it was very much a piece of a greater whole, and so some aspects that seemed important will most likely come into play much later. That’s not to say there isn’t a full and complete story. There is. It’s just not necessarily the one you think it will be.