Series: THE MENAGERIE SERIES
Plot Type: Fantasy (definitely for adults, not YA)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles: MIRA
This world looks much like our real world with one big exception: the existence of cryptids—animals who appear in myths and folktales, but for which there is no scientific evidence of existence. (Click HERE for a comprehensive list of cryptids worldwide.) The series heroine, Delilah Marlow, has an undergraduate degree in cryptobiology, which—as it turns out—is quite ironic, given her true heritage.
At intervals throughout the first book, Vincent inserts brief quotations from the mass media that explain why cryptids, who had been completely free under the Sanctuary Act, are now kept in captivity, either in private collections, traveling freak shows (like the Menagerie), on poorly supervised state-run reservations, on hunting preserves (as prey), or in unregulated laboratories (as subjects of horrific experiments).
Here's what happened: In August 1986, over a million children died overnight, most reportedly killed in their sleep by their parents, all of whom had been hypnotized in some way by their one surviving child. After the mass massacre, authorities discovered that each surviving child was born in March 1980. When blood tests were run on the survivors, the shocking results showed that not a single one was human. The government called these changeling children "surrogates," and this tragedy became known as "the reaping." People still use the mantra "Remember the Reaping" as "a warning not to let history repeat itself. A reminder for humanity not to let its guard down. 'Remember the Reaping' was an American way of life."
More than 300,000 of the surrogates were rounded up to be studied in secret laboratories, but some escaped notice. They are now thirty-five years old and are presumed to be hiding within the human population. In search of a scapegoat, the government focused on the cryptid community, which denied all knowledge of the surrogates. Within months, and under pressure from the human population, skeptical officials began sending cryptids to secure detention camps, "to protect the human community from the threat of further attack." Soon Congress stripped the protection of the U.S. Constitution from all cryptids, meaning that they were no long citizens, could not purchase property or sign contracts, could not hold jobs or receive free education, had absolutely no civil rights, and could be bought and sold as property. The human population views the cryptids with both fear and fascination—a perfect combination of emotions for a traveling carnival to exploit. Even though the cryptids are now caged, people still remember the reaping. After all, "if monsters could look like humans, and humans could look like monsters, how could anyone ever really be sure that the right people stood on the outside of all those cages?"
The titular menagerie is Metzger's Menagerie, a traveling carnival that features the usual games and high-cholesterol food choices along with a freak show of cryptids. The owner of the Menagerie, Rudolph Metzger, cuts expenses to the bone by providing near-starvation nutrition for the cryptids and by treating them as if they were circus animals. "Bathing" for many of them means a wash-down from a high-power hose. Living quarters are filthy circus cars that are closed up and hauled around the country by trucks. Handlers are frequently sadistic sociopaths who abuse the cryptids physically, sexually, and emotionally every chance they get, withholding food as punishment and beating the cryptids for every misstep, no matter how small.
One final note: The manner in which the cryptids are treated reminds me of the wolves in Jennifer Ashley's SHIFTERS UNBOUND series. Those wolves also have no civil rights and are forced to live in "reservations" called Shiftertowns. Click HERE to read my review of that series. Seanan McGuire also writes a terrific series featuring cryptids: INCRYPTID series. Click HERE for my review of that series.
When Delilah Marlow visits a famous traveling carnival, Metzger's Menagerie, she is an ordinary woman in a not-quite-ordinary world. But under the macabre circus black-top, she discovers a fierce, sharp-clawed creature lurking just beneath her human veneer. Captured and put on exhibition, Delilah is stripped of her worldly possessions, including her own name, as she's forced to "perform" in town after town.
On her web site, Vincent describes Menagerie as being "a story about humanity, and how we define that concept, both good and bad. It is, in various places, beautiful and horrific." At one point, a character tries to comfort the heroine, "Most people have something horrible hidden inside. A beast. A secret. A sin. What makes you and the other exhibits different is that your inner monster can't be explained by the laws of physics and biology as we know them. What people don't understand, they fear. What they fear, they lock up, so they can come see whatever scares them behind steel bars or glass walls and call themselves brave. But that only tells you who they are, not who you are."
As the book opens, Delilah Marlow is a typical young woman: a bank teller with a nice apartment, a somewhat boring boyfriend, and a best friend from childhood. But that all changes one night when she and her friends visit Metzger's Menagerie and take a look at the cryptid humanoid and hybrid exhibits. When one of the handlers viciously uses a cattle prod on a young werewolf girl, Delilah erupts in rage. All of a sudden, her voice becomes deep and growly; her fingernails become long, sharp claws; and her hair takes on a mind of its own—swirling around her head as if it were alive. When she puts her hands around the handler's head, he begins to use the cattle prod on himself. At that point, another handler knocks Delilah out and when she wakes up, she is in jail, where a deputy breaks the bad news to her that she is a cryptid and that her life as a human is over. "They're not gonna give you a lawyer, Delilah. Cryptids aren't citizens. You have no rights in the U.S. of A., in Franklin County, or in the incorporated township of Franklin. You are now the property of the state of Oklahoma."
Faced with the loss of everything, Delilah is in deep despair, especially when the sheriff sells her to Rudolph Metzger, who plans to put her on exhibit. But first, he has to find out what kind of cryptid she is and one of Metzger's handlers has to break Delilah to his will. That handler is Gallagher, a behemoth of a man who—strangely—treats Delilah with much more kindness and patience than anyone else does.
Vincent tells the story mostly in the third-person voice from multiple points of view, but Delilah's chapters are written in her intelligent, defiant first-person voice. Delilah is a smart woman who takes note of every detail of her awful new life. She talks back to her handlers, makes friends with the other cryptids, and waits for her chance to escape. During her early days in the Menagerie, Delilah mourns the fact that "I no longer owned anything but thoughts and memories, and with each minute that passed, I volleyed between outrage and grief over my loss."
The book is divided into three parts: "Éxposé," "Confiné," and "Emancipé." In those subtitles, Vincent presents the plot pattern for the book—Delilah's dreadful journey from exposure to incarceration to liberation.
For my own benefit (and yours, too, if you want to use it), I am including an annotated list of the supporting characters. (When I read the second novel a year from now, this will help me remember who's who.) Vincent writes a chapter or more from each of these characters' point of view.
Charity Marlow: Delilah's mother, who once wished that her constantly crying baby would be exchanged for a well-behaved one. She learned a hard lesson that day: Be careful what you wish for.
Rudolph Metzger: Owner of the Menagerie, which has been in his family for 112 years. He mostly leaves the operations of the carnival to his staff, but he is brutally pragmatic about keeping his costs low, his profit margins wide, and his security system tight. He pays little or no attention to the cruelties inflicted by the handlers unless, that is, they have a negative effect to the cryptids' public performances. "He could tell at a glance which werewolf pup was the hardiest of the litter and which centaurs could subsist on oats and water without compromising their stamina. Rudolph knew just how to coax the livestock [i.e., the cryptids] into breeding, and exactly when to sell which offspring to supplement income during the rough winter months."
Gallagher: A tall, broad, solid man who always wears a red baseball hat. Metzger assigns him to be Delilah's handler with instructions to break her. Delilah describes him as being "like a puzzle put together all wrong. The pieces shouldn't have fit, yet there he stood, made of equal parts compromise and rigidity. Compassion and mercenary determination to protect his paycheck." Gallagher seeks to gain Delilah's trust by proclaiming that "my word is my honor." But is Gallagher what he seems? Why is he relatively kind to Delilah and the other cryptids? What's his game?
Rommily: an emotionally damaged oracle who is imprisoned alongside her two sisters, Mirela and Lala. No one knows exactly who or what caused Rommily's psychotic break several months ago, but since that time she has lost touch with the real world and simply calls out words and phrases that always come true in future events. Now twenty years old, she was sold to the Menagerie when she was six. When Rommily first sees Delilah, she mumbles a chilling prophecy, "She won't serve her dish cold…and two graves won't be near enough…"
Nalah: a smoldering, fiery ifrit (djinn) who has the hots for Gallagher. She serves as handmaiden to Princess Adira, a royal djinn—a merid.
Clyde, Wallace, and Ruyle: three of the cruelest of the handlers. They have it in for Delilah from the beginning because she knows just how to push their sociopathic buttons.
Claudio and Genveviève (Genn)i: father and daughter French werewolves. Clyde's torture of Genni is the catalyst for Delilah's first cryptid episode.
Eryx: a seven-foot-tall minotaur who has a bull's nose and a long tail and stands "on two powerful legs, neither fully bovine nor human, but some combination that merged huge hooves and shaggy brown hair with a mostly upright skeletal structure...His chest and arms were human, enormously muscled, and deeply tanned…Above and behind a drooping set of cow ears grew a pair of curved, whitish horns…" Ruyle describes Eryx as "the perfect menagerie freak. He works hard, brings in customers, and never talks back. Or at all, for that matter," because his bull's muzzle is not suited to human speech. But that doesn't mean that he has a bovine brain. Eryx is alert, smart, and crazy about Rommily.
Alyrose: the human make-up artist/wardrobe mistress/inventory supervisor/art director for the Menagerie. She is the only one (besides Gallagher) who treats Delilah like a real person.
Abraxas: Although he doesn't smile or chat with the cryptids, this young handler isn't cruel like so many of the others. He is just eighteen and has been with the Menagerie only three months.
Kevin: A handler who appears to be having an affair with Lenore, a siren.
This is a terrific start to a fresh and inventive new series. Delilah is a great heroine—smart, strong, and sassy. The supporting characters—the ones who live through to the end of the book, that is—will make for fascinating reading in future books. Gallagher is a hero who is driven by honor and tradition, not by carnal desires, so his reactions to people and events are very different than any UF hero you have ever met. In other words, Delilah and Gallagher aren't one of those leather-wearing, sword-brandishing hero/heroine couples that are obligatory in urban fantasy novels. I can't wait to see where the Menagerie travels in the next book. Vincent says that the series will have a love interest, but that it won't be Delilah and Gallagher. So…Rommily and Eryx? Gallagher and Nalah?We'll see.
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Menagerie on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art for print or on the "Listen" icon for audio.
Just one tiny proof-reading nitpick, the exact same one I found in another book last week: the incorrect use of "ring" instead of the correct "wring": "...a collector who'll ring every dime he can out of you…" It's that pesky old electronic bugaboo, auto-correction, again. It seems to have replaced traditional, accurate eyes-on-the-page proofreading.