Historical Fiction Literary Fiction

Circus of Wonders – Elizabeth Macneal

15 May 2021
Circus of Wonders Book Cover Circus of Wonders
Historical Fiction
13 May 2021

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell's life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.


Elizabeth Macneal has written a superb historical fiction novel that is full of drama and adventure. Set against the Victorian obsession with oddities, freaks, and wonders, many captivating story threads bring us mystery, intrigue, and the enthralling draw of circus life and performance. Nell is a young woman living in a southern English coastal town with her brother and father. She was born with birthmarks across her body which received her the nickname ‘Leopard Girl’ and ensures her life is one of loneliness, ridicule and ostracization. Her only comfort comes from her brother while her father considers her to be a curse.

“It begins with an advertisement, nailed to an oak tree. ‘Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders!’ someone shouts. ‘What is it?’ ‘The greatest show on earth!’ “

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes calling on their village, Nell’s father takes the opportunity of selling her to the circus for twenty pounds. Jasper owns and runs the travelling circus and his brother plays a supporting role without feeling ownership or authority. The relationship between Jasper and his brother Toby is quite complex and while there is a bond of family duty there are destructive tones of jealousy, manipulation, dominance, threats of abandonment, ridicule and retribution. The acute feelings of jealousy that are exposed from their childhood through the Crimean War, where Jasper was a soldier and Toby a war photographer, to their involvement in the circus, is never too far away and always bubbling under the surface. During their time in the war, they met a charismatic friend, Dash, who enthralled Jasper with his plans for a circus, but he disliked Toby and described him as a ‘dullard’ – probably very accurate. These relationships were to end in tragedy and a secret that Jasper and Toby maintained, although a price is exacted for the silence and the truth of how Dash died.

Initially distraught with her sale to the circus, Nell finds herself amongst other people considered freaks but develops a belonging and a place where she can learn to celebrate her uniqueness. Along with the bearded lady, the tall, the strong and the small, she joins her surrogate family. Jasper eventually makes her a star and the undertone of jealousy finds another outlet and the three-way relationship between Nell, Jasper and Toby becomes more complicated where desire and attraction are not equally or noticeable applied.

The full cast of characters is wonderfully developed with their mix of flawed and admirable traits. The relationships they form and the motives, duties, and concern they have is fascinating as events unfold that regularly challenge their lives. Circus of Wonders is a beautifully written novel with incredible depth and an engrossing storyline. It provides an authentic atmosphere with many of the Victorian views on power, ownership, society and exploitation on display.

I would highly recommend this book and I reckon Circus of Wonders is set to be an outstanding best-seller for 2021. I would also like to thank Picador, Pan Macmillan, and NetGalley to provide me with a free ARC copy in return for an honest review. 

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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