Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

I read Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, a couple of years ago and loved it. I was super excited to see this book was coming out and I absolutely love the cover. The cover is eye catching and bright and just screams ‘circus theme’ and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Honestly the cover and title implied that it would be a lot more whimsical and happy then it actually was.

Having read her previous novel, I was not entirely surprised that this book was a bit more serious than the cover implies. Macneal has a great way of capturing the atmosphere of late Victorian England and she has a strong sense of history as well as creating memorable characters. In her book The Doll Factory, I seem to recall that her characters had some disfigurements and in this one the main character also suffers from a disfigurement. This little detail really makes for powerful and outstanding characters which is why her books themselves stand out for me so much.

If you love historical fiction but want something a little different with a hint of circus glamour then you need to read this book. I loved the atmosphere and story more than I thought I would. While I love the cover, I think it implies more of a carefree story inside but this one had substance and so much to remember. I really liked it as a follow up to The Doll Factory, the books aren’t related but I see themes in both and I love that Macneal has such a wonderful style that will stand out to readers.


From the #1 internationally bestselling author of the “lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book ReviewThe Doll Factory comes an atmospheric and spectacular novel where one woman’s life is transformed by the arrival of a Victorian circus of wonders…

Step up, step up! In 1860s England, circus mania is sweeping the nation. Crowds jostle for a glimpse of the lion-tamers, the dazzling trapeze artists and, most thrilling of all, the so-called “human wonders.”

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in a poor coastal town, the life of one young girl changes forever. Sold to the ringmaster as a “leopard girl” because of the birthmarks that cover her body, Nell is utterly devastated. But as she grows close to the other performers, she finds herself enchanted by the glittering freedom of the circus, and by her own role as the Queen of the Moon and Stars.

Before long, Nell’s fame spreads across the world—and with it, a chance for Jasper Jupiter to grow his own name and fortune. But what happens when her fame begins to eclipse his own, when even Jasper’s loyal brother Toby becomes captivated by Nell? No longer the quiet flower-picker, Nell knows her own place in the world, and she will fight for it.

A gorgeously wrought exploration of celebrity, power and belonging, this is a historical novel unlike any other, with an unforgettable heroine at its heart. (summary from Goodreads)


This book definitely has a Gothic undertone to it. There are parts and descriptions in the book that might be a little darker than readers might be expecting. I personally love the Gothic elements but it might not be for all readers. There are some darker family elements/relationships which some readers might feel were unexpected going into this one. As I said I have read Macneal’s other novel which was also a strongly Gothic read so this wasn’t surprising for me but new readers might be a little shocked that this one is a bit on the dark side. But what said if you love the Gothic like I do then I think you will really enjoy this book!

I found Nell’s journey and growth in this book really exciting. I loved watching her overcome her personal struggles as well as embrace her physical maladies. I loved seeing her kind of have a ‘swan song’ in this book with coming to terms with her physical deformities and become her own unique character. This is a book that really examines a variety of topics like being a celebrity and how that can take a tole or be a blessing. It also deals with some power issues and I think this would be a great book for book clubs It was really a wonderful story to watch unfold. I thought this one was extremely well research, authentic, with lots of rich characters. I really enjoyed reading it much more than I anticipated.

One of the things I wasn’t expecting to get from this book was how much the Crimean War would play into this book. I don’t know much about the Crimean War so that part of this book was unexpected even if it was a little graphic, it was an interesting period to read about from a historical standpoint for me. I feel like I learned something while enjoying a great story which is a win win for me!

Book Info and Rating

Format: 368 pages, paperback

Publishes: February 1 2022 by Atria Books

ISBN: 9781982106799

Free review copy provided by publisher, Atria Books, in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and in no way influenced.

Rating: 4 stars

Genre: historical fiction

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