10 Great Reads Set in the Circus

This list of great circus books is sponsored by Flatiron Books and Legendary by Stephanie Garber.

After being swept up in the magical world of Caraval, Donatella Dragna has finally escaped her father and saved her sister Scarlett from a disastrous arranged marriage. The girls should be celebrating, but Tella isn’t yet free. She made a desperate bargain with a mysterious criminal, and the time to repay the debt has come.

 

 


The circus as a setting is ripe for literature, television shows, movies, and stories of all kinds. It’s bright, lively, and colorful, sometimes hiding dark secrets, and always providing a backdrop for interesting characters. Step right up and check out these 10 great books set in the circus.

Death of a circus by chadra pasadDeath of a circus by chadra pasad

Pasad’s deubt novel tells the story of a fictional circus troupe called Binglebright Circus. traveling through the United States during a time in American history when smaller circuses were beginning to die out. The story follows multiple narratives. At the center of it all is newcomer Lor Cole, a young African American man who joins the circus as a tightrope walker. Pasad tackles many issues through her eclectic group of characters, such as racism, sexism, and animal abuse. If you’re looking for a cheerful glossy take on the circus, this book may not be for you. But if you’re interested in dynamic characters and thoughtful prose with a little bit of magic and history mixed in, Death of a Circus is a must-read.

book of speculation cover erika swylerthe book of speculation by erika swyler

The Book of Speculation is the perfect novel for people who love books, circuses, tarot, and mermaids. Have I piqued your interest yet? This novel follows the Watson family through generations, tracing the origins of an alleged curse on this family of circus mermaids. In the present, librarian Simon Watson investigates the curse on his family and attempts to save his sister from the same fate.

geek love by katherine dunngeek love by katherine dunn

This is the story of a family of circus geeks. The Binewskis have bred an entire family of circus oddities with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes: siamese twins, a boy with flippers for feet, a boy with telekinesis, and an albino hunchback. In this novel, Katherine Dunn explores the concept of “freakishness,” religion, and what it means to be a family.

prince of mist by Carlos ruiz zafónprince of mist by Carlos ruiz zafón

Full disclosure: I had to include this novel because I love this author with all of my heart. Prince of Mist is the first novel in Zafón’s young adult La Trilogía de la Niebla series; however, this novel works just as well as a standalone. While a circus is not the central focus of this novel, a group of circus performers (including a clown) play a pivotal role in the story when the Carter children investigate the mysterious death of Jacob, a spirit who still haunts their home.

full tilt by neal shustermanfull tilt by neal shusterman

To be fair, this is more about a carnival than a circus. Nevertheless, I’m including this book because of its clear homage to another great circusy novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Rad Bradbury, a novel that also straddles the line between circus and carnival. Blake and Quinn are two brothers who are thrust into the world of a dark carnival where their very souls hang in the balance. In order to survive and save his younger brother’s soul, Blake has to ride seven terrifying rides that tap into his deepest fears.

truevine by beth macytruevine by beth macy

Journalist Beth Macy tells a true story that reveals the dark underbelly of the circus and of America as a country. In 1899, George and Willie Muse, two young African American brothers in a sharecropper family, were taken from their home and captured by a circus. The two brothers became performers for the circus, forced to play freaks and barbaric cannibals because of the color of their skin. Through in-depth interviews and thorough research, Macy explores the lives of these brothers and what their story tells us about poverty and race relations in America.

the Night circus by erin morgensternthe Night circus by erin morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning.” So begins Erin Morgenstern’s beloved novel about  Le Cirque des Rêves, a circus that’s only open at night. At the center of this circus are two magicians, Celia and Marco, who, unbeknownst to them, are involved in a battle where only one can be left standing. When Celia and Marco fall instantly and magically in love with one another, the game still must play out to its final conclusion.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter book covernights at the circus by angela carter

You can’t have a list of fantastical books without throwing something by Angela Carter in the mix. Sophie Fevvers is an aerialist and the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She also just so happens to be part swan. Intrigued by Sophie’s story, American journalist Jack Walser joins the circus on its tour through Europe. And of course, he falls in love with Sophie, the beautiful amazonian swan woman. Through Sophie, Carter explores feminism at the turn of the nineteenth century using an offbeat magical realist lens.

pantomime by laura lampantomime by laura lam

Gene comes from a well-to-do family, but she harbors a secret: she is both male and female. Even more distressing to her parents are her magical abilities, which force her to run away from home and join the circus. There, she reinvents herself as Micah Grey, an aerialist. Her new live is not without darkness, however; Micah is plagued by ominous visions that foretell of danger. This is the first book in a series, one you will likely feel compelled to keep reading after reaching the last page.

water for elephants by sarah gruenwater for elephants by sarah gruen

Surely everyone has heard of Water for Elephants at this point, but what is a list of circus books without it? Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student who leaves school just before finishing his degree. He finds work as a veterinarian for the animals in a traveling circus that has fallen on hard times during the Great Depression. This circus is where he meets Rosie, an elephant with whom he forms a close bond,  and Marlena, the star act of the circus, with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately for Jacob, Marlena is married to August, the animal trainer. Yes, this story has a love triangle at its center, and you might feel a bit fatigued with love triangles right now; however, this novel also features an elephant, and who doesn’t love elephants?

So many books have been written about the circus that it was hard to narrow this list down to ten. If I left your favorite circus books off the list, please let me know in the comments!

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