City of Circles

      Publisher: Sceptre 

      RRP: £16.99

      Author: Jess Richards 

      Published:  2017-08-10




Danu is a tightrope walker who is mourning her parents, after a disease has ravaged the circus where she grew up. Her mother has entrusted her with a locket that hides a secret. Over the years, Danu pushes away her grief and develops elaborate and successful high-wire acts with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu's birthplace, Matryoshka, Danu is enchanted by the temples, spice mists, and pleasure seekers within the intoxicating outer circle district. Here, she finally gains the courage to open her mother's locket, and discovers the name of a stranger who lives behind the locked gate of the Inner Circle. Fated to remain in Matryoshka, Danu attempts to resolve this mystery... Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something far more unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city?


Enjoyable, and leaves the reader wanting more.


Jess Richards’ third novel is an interesting, yet somewhat odd tale. The cover compares it with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which feels like an obvious comparison to make given the centrality of circus life in both tales. However, City of Circles suffers a little from the comparison with such a well-received story.

Danu’s world is small; she has only ever known the life of the circus, travelling from place to place, and she is bereft and lost when both her parents pass away. She constructs a hard outer shell, distancing herself from the people around her from her emotions and from caring about anything at all. Instead, she throws herself into her work as a tightrope walker. This portrayal of grief feels well realised, powerful and insightful. However, there are some aspects of the world, and of Matryoshka in particular, which are slightly jarring. Danu’s world is that of a travelling caravan, oil lamps and musical instruments. As far as the reader can ascertain from the narrative there are no motorised vehicles, telephones, computers, railways, television, radio or recorded music. Hence, it feels like an anachronism to suddenly find mention of overhead electricity cables, refrigerators, automatic doors and elevators. This doesn’t feel like the alternative history one might find in a gaslight fantasy title; rather, it feels more like a story set in a less technologically advanced society, so when one discovers modern elements without explanation, it feels jarring and takes one out of the story a little.

The other issue with this book is the portrayal of the central relationship between Danu and her tightrope partner, Morrie. This is couched in the terms of a romance, but at times it feels uncomfortable. Morrie is ten years Danu’s senior and continues to hold a torch for her, despite her rejections of his advances. When we see through Morrie’s eyes we learn that he has been attracted to Danu since she developed, which feels questionable, and when we learn that he follows her at times, and lifts the bedsheets to look at her body, the relationship veers into creepy territory.

Despite these issues, City of Circles is an engaging read. It manages to portray both the romance and the poverty and hard work of the travelling performers well, and deals well with the subject of grief. The eponymous city, Matryoshka, is fascinating, and one can easily be pulled under its spell, much like the main character. It captures the wonder and isolation of being young and alone in a foreign city well, and more exploration of the three circles of the city would have been a welcome addition. The magical elements of the story feel very believable.

Overall, City of Circles is enjoyable and leaves the reader wanting more - wanting to know what comes next in Danu’s journey. It remains to be seen whether a sequel will follow, and whether it will address the niggles with this otherwise competent first entry.