The Ninth Circle by Brendan Deneen (Galley)
Release Date: January 30, 2014
Genre: Fiction, retelling, horror, fantasy, the circus, taking the words freak and show to a whole new level
Rating: 3.8 out of 5 stars
Summary: Inspired by Dante Alighieri’s TheInferno (you know, the fun epic poem in the trilogy), The Ninth Circle follows Daniel as he escapes from his past and into the world of the dark and sinister circus, led along the way by the mysterious Ringmaster. While there he meets the sinful denizens of the Big Top as he delves deeper and deeper into their world, uncovering an evil individual that wants to take the circus down, all while Daniel is desperately fleeing from his own truths.
Brendan Deneen’s The Ninth Circle was inspired by the fabulous circus novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, as well as the Dante poem The Inferno. With the Ringleader taking on the role of Virgil, he leads teenager Daniel (who has been living a Hell on earth with his family) and shows him a more literal Hell, represented in the circus which travels through nine states reminiscent of the nine circles that Dante and Virgil travel through to get to purgatory. All while Dan learns about the sins and stories of those who inhabit the circus freak show. Very uplifting stuff.
The story ultimately follows Daniel — this story’s Dante — who seems to go unnoticed by everyone around him except his sadistic older brother and the circus folk who take him in. Although with very few exceptions like his new love interest the Bearded Lady and the Ringmaster who leads him through the circus, the workers don’t think he belongs, much as the dead are disturbed that the living Dante has entered their domain. Not only does he not belong because he’s an outsider, but they’re partially unwilling to allow him in because they don’t want anyone to suffer as they suffer. See, told you it was uplifting.
As with Dante’s original poem, the novel opens with Daniel in the vestibule to Hell (in this case the entrance to the circus) before he runs away from home and is taken into Hell by the Ringmaster. Which is pretty rough considering the people who inhabit the circus are in a living Hell trapped in and tortured by their own pasts. This is especially interesting when you consider that circuses themselves are representative of the American past.
Since Daniel cannot travel literal circles of Hell, because there’s only so much magical realism within the text, the Ringmaster takes him from state to state where he learns more about the pasts of the Acrobat, the Strong Man, the Fire Eater, the Clown, the Escape Artist, the Magician, the Bearded Lady, the Fat Lady and the Traitor, with chapters being referred to as “cantos” as in the original poem. Albeit not structured as poetry.
Also as with Dante’s construction, each circle represents a different sin and each punishment for the sinful ones are a form of poetic justice. For example, in the original, fortune tellers have to walk with their heads turned around backward so they are unable to see what literally lies ahead of them as punishment for peeking unto the future. A similar fate befalls Daniel’s Fortune Teller although not so literal. As Virgil explains, these punishments are chosen in life because of the sins committed. In much this same way, the members of the circus are being punished in the present by their past deeds and choices.
There’s a circus member on the run for killing his brother and wife after their sex scandal because he was overcome by lust, the hoarder who was punished for his greed in holding onto goods, tricksters who are bit by snakes, those who prove to be false are stricken down with disease, in this case leprosy and in the very center of Hell (or the Big Top) Satan himself, who is represented by a mysterious figure who is set on destroying the circus from the inside. You don’t even want to know how Satan punishes traitors.
In addition to the circles of Hell and the states focusing on sins, there are also some characters names which you may recognize throughout the text. Take for example the Acrobat named Homer who is super into philosophy and who is lamenting the loss of his friend Horace. In Circle One, Dante encounters the poets Homer and Horace who are trapped in Limbo with philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc for being filthy unbaptized pagans. THE HORROR!
There’s also Cal the Fortune Teller’s son Guido, named after Guido Bonatti, an astrologer who can be found in the Eighth Circle along with the punishments for fortune tellers. Read: the head backwards thing I discussed above.
Not to mention Mal the Animal Trainer who could be named after the Malebranch (“Evil Claws”) thirteen demons led by Malacoda who use their farts as trumpets for comic relief purposes or possibly after Malebolge, which are a series of ditches in the Eighth Circle of Hell. One such ditch is a pool of excrement which flatterers are punished in since they spew so much shit. Poetic, huh? And for a guy who cleans up after animals, the excrement makes more sense. There’s also his collection of beasts, including the bear named Ugolina after Count Ugolina, who drove Pisa to food shortages and riots and was punished by being locked away with his sons and starved to death. He can be found in Circle Nine chewing on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. Yeah, you do not want to trust that bear.
SIDE NOTE: These are of course by no means comprehensive examples within the book because it’s been a while since I cracked open Dante so there are probably a billion things I missed. Also, I’m not an expert on The Inferno by any means. Mostly because that class never fit into my college schedule.
The elements also come into play throughout the novel. Rain stands in for actually freezing rain, vicious dogs become representative of the three-headed guard dog Cerberus, a torrential downpour is the river Styx, the circus in Mobile is set on top of a huge cliff like the Malebolge, an ice-storm stands in for traitors being encased in ice, etc, etc.
Partially because of the subject matter (it’s inspired by Hell and revolves around a freak show), Deneen is not afraid to be politically incorrect with the way his narrator refers to little people and the mentally disabled and he throws around some homophobic slurs that could be offensive to some. It’s also steeped in violence — particularly in the last circle — which may also be a detriment to anyone who doesn’t like graphic descriptions of disembowelment.
However, if you can get past that because you’re looking for an intriguing retelling of The Inferno and have a soft spot for books set in a circus world then this is definitely for you.
Also, how could you say no to that gorgeous cover art? Come on!
-Intriguing retelling of Dante’s Inferno
-Everybody loves a good story set at a circus, right?
-Cover artwork is to die for (not literally)
-Borders on incredibly depressing because Hell
-Can get a tad hyper-violent and politically incorrect
The Ninth Circle: Book Trailer
For other circus reads, I highly recommend The Night Circus (a fantasy story in which magic is real and anything is possible), Geek Love (the haunting story of a circus family who is created through a combination of incest and radiation), Water for Elephants (the tear-jerking circus love story) and Dreamland (the historical fiction tale centered partially in Coney Island, so slightly more amusement park than circus but still recommended).