'A Circus of Brass and Bone' is, in author Abra SW's (Abra Staffin-Wiebe) own words, "a post-apocalyptic steampunk novel about a circus traveling through the collapse of civilization."
It's also as much a literary paradigm shift as it is a physical book release. She's a local author who's written for Apex, Odyssey, Baen's Universe and Tor.com. Her short stories have popped up practically everywhere. Before this week, though, she'd been relatively scarce in the broader world of sci-fi/fantasy novels. That scarcity has probably got more to do with her writing's uniqueness than its quality, which is a relevant and important point. Here's why:
As much as any modern author hates to admit it, our publishing industry came up on a foundation of old boy networks. Women who wrote during science fiction's Golden Age did so under androgynous initials or male pseudonyms, and let's not even get started on minority writers. While that sort of exclusion may have been less about intentional bigotry than fear of a flop -- publishers didn't think they could sell sci-fi unless a white male wrote it -- it was a real and prevalent part of the industry that could kill a potential visionary's career.
Things are a little different now. As times have changed, the industry has made some noble efforts at shaking those vestigial prejudices, but the debilitating fear of losing money remains pretty much intractable. So, in a market that can reward authors for churning out lycanthrope erotica and boy messiah stories, more daring and original ideas don't often get much traction.
Things are still getting better, though. The days when a book had to adhere to market trends just to be called good are mostly behind us now. Modern editors are more willing to acknowledge a story's merits even if they don't see enough potential revenue to actually publish it, and readers don't typically care who published a book: A fan cares more about whether or not they liked the story than about whose signature it took to get printed.
That's where A Circus of Brass and Bone comes in. This is really good writing, but you won't find it in the book section at Target. It's a story that takes too many chances to start out as anything other than indie art. A big press can't risk investing in it, so there's no big marketing machine getting it out to new readers. It simply isn't what's hot right now. There's no werewolf porn or awkward male fantasy fulfillment to speak of.
Instead of all that, 'Circus' is a steampunk fantasy piece told in a period voice. It has a thick Dickensian accent and the affectations of Christie, Shelley and Austen. It's sparking conversations you'd expect at a dinner party where Katherine Dunn, Cormac McCarthy and Kurt Vonnegut had a little too much wine. It's imaginative modern literature.
The story itself is a layered mystery set back a bit on an alternate timeline, when the Industrial Revolution was as much about magic as it was steam. It's a dark, supernatural and altogether bizarre examination of the human condition and it remains true to form for a post-apocalyptic novel: It's also a class commentary that asks how we'd adapt to a world in which society, with all its benefits and ills, suddenly and violently imploded.
'Circus' is not just a good novel, though. By being a good, self-published novel that came out free from the old school derision self-published authors have come to expect, it's also a sign of changing times. The days when an indie author might just as well write their story in sidewalk chalk seem to be on the wane, and the prose world is catching up with its sibling arts communities: In music, film and even comic books, independent creators have long been lauded for their talent, ambition and vision. All of which Abra SW has displayed in abundance with this novel.
If you don't see it on a shelf at your local bookseller, they'll probably order it for you. While you're waiting on that, the tie-in novelette 'A Stranger Comes to Town: A Circus of Brass and Bone Adventure' is available for free at the author's website, or for $.99 in the Kindle store.
A Circus of Brass and Bone
Author: Abra SW
Release Date: January 15, 2015