Book review: The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Escaping from a dark and terrible situation usually demands one thing, and one thing only – just get the hell away!

Whatever comes after that is the subject of improvisation and desperation, and if it’s a good thing, something that changes your life, well that is the luxuriant icing on a cake you’re happy to be eating wherever you find yourself.

Having escaped a diabolical place of immoral experimentation and callous, horrific abuse where his only usefulness is as a test subject for his ability to manipulate gravity, Jes finds himself on the pleasure moon of Persephone-9, a place so utterly different to his old life that he can scarcely believe his driving plan to find sanctuary of any kind has yielded such blissfully good results.

In unexpectedly short order, he finds himself a job with Circus Infinite (then going by another name), a place to stay and a group of work friends who quickly become the family he never expected to have, and a sweet, special queer love with the charming Bo who remakes Jes’s life in ways he never imagined could be his reality.

But as gifted novelist and published poet Khan Wong (who also toured with a circus rather handily) makes resonantly clear in The Circus Infinite, even the best of gifts come with gross imperfection, in this case in the form of crime boss, Niko Dax, who owns the glossy resort-casino which is home to the circus; if Jes wants to keep his new dream life, he’s going to have to use his powers in abhorrently unpalatable ways, and come perilously close to compromising the very things and people who have come to mean the most to him.

“The upward beam doesn’t look that far away, so Jes chooses to walk the distance. He doesn’t want to spend what little coin he has on transit just yet. He steps off the plaza and onto the promenade, joining the hustle and bustle of Port Ruby.

Is he really going to go by what his grandmother’s crystal told him to do? he doesn’t really have another plan, and this at least provides him a destination.” (P. 15)

The Circus Infinite is that rarest and most wonderful of novels.

It combines a fast-paced race for safety from an evil that sees people purely as experimental resources with an exploration of touching themes of belonging (of all kinds), new queer love, the preciousness of found family and unconditional acceptance for who you are ethnically, sexually, in every way.

As themes go, these are as big and beguiling as the luminously eye-catching imaginative acts that attract crowds to the Circus Infinite’s narrative-laced shows, and its exclusive after-show dinner events, and they give The Circus Infinite a heart as sprawling as the galaxy in which this brilliantly thoughtful and expansively, emotionally alive novel takes place.

This is space opera writ smaller than normal but with a punch to the heart and revitalisation to the soul so pronounced and so large that it dwarfs many other stories in the genre.

For a start, it places a heartfelt, open and honest protagonist, who is also biracial and asexual, at the heart of some intensely personal action.

There’s not always room for explorations of the heart and the soul in novels with big themes at work and actions almost always on the boil but Wong finds a superlatively adroit away to make it happen with Jes driving some major plot points while being given more than enough time to make a real emotional impact and take a deep dive into his once-broken, now vibrantly awake life.

Khan Wong (courtesy official Khan Wong Twitter account)

Reading The Circus Infinite is to find yourself in the centre of one person’s charmingly transformative journey from lost and alone to wrapped firmly in the bosom of a family of friends, many of whom are gloriously and reassuringly queer – when you are queer yourself in an often less than welcoming world, reading about a world in which acceptance comes selflessly and naturally is a quiet but fulsome joy that alone makes this novel worth your time – and all of whom are dedicated to ensuring Jes gets to keep his precious new life.

It’s impossible to overstate how impactful this is; in the middle of an escapist adventure in a galaxy full of human diaspora and aliens with societies so richly vibrant you will feel as if they have sprung to life around you, no longer bound to the pages of the book you’re holding, we go down to an intimately human level, one where the protagonist finds a place to belong that values him for all the right reasons and which is filled with people who want him to stick around.

It’s the perfect mix of high adventure and introspective wonder and rich emotiveness, with Wong investing The Circus Infinite with a humanity so intensely and soul-stirringly abundant that you spend the novel willing Jes to be allowed to keep it all.

“‘I supposed you could put it like that. Or you could consider that you’re treasured for your specialties. Mixed orientation relationships aren’t common among us, but they do happen. What matters is the people involved value their heart connection above all. Bo has clearly chosen you. I sense it and I know you can too. Speaking as your friend, and speaking empath to empath – sometimes we have to choose which feelings to focus on. Focus on the love and let that guide you. The rest will sort itself.

Jes blinks tears from his eyes, wipes them with the back of his hand. He hopped on that shuttle to the moon seeking refuge; he hadn’t expected to find friendship and belonging and love. ‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘Any time.'” (P. 245)

Sure, the world can be evil and terrible and darkly cruel, but it can be, and Wong demonstrates this so beautifully and fulsomely you will thank him a thousand times over for the gift of insight and the warmth of reassurance that good things are possible, a place of love and acceptance and heart-on-the-sleeve loveliness too.

Bolstered by effortless, imagination-stoking worldbuilding and characters who are given just the right amount of time to come alive and seize your heart, or repel it where narratively necessary, The Circus Infinite is a gem of a read that knows every step of its captivating way that where there is action, there must also be heart.

In fact, there must be so much heart and humanity and hope that all the action makes sense, with all the compromised choices and impossible situations and the scarred solutions, coming with meaning and purpose, the kind that keep Jes going when lesser souls might simply have given up.

But Jes doesn’t, gifted with far more good and powerfully affecting things than he expected to hold in his hands and his heart, and as his career and life take off, and he must fight to defend them from people too close for comfort, The Circus Infinite springs buoyantly and poignantly to queer and wondrous life, a love letter to the idea that bad things might happen, truly awful, heart-scarring things, but that good things happen too, and that they live and grow in ways that make you believe anything is possible, a gift rich and rare in a world, and galaxy too, that all too often forgets that salient, life-changing lesson.

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