Book Review: Menagerie, Rachel Vincent (2015)

September 28th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“I deal in morality, not in law.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

“She won’t serve her dish cold,” the oracle mumbled, almost giddy with joy as chill bumps rose all over her skin. “And two graves won’t be near enough…”

What was I, if I had no name, no friends, no family, no job, no home, no belongings, and no authority over my own body? What could I be?

In a sudden surreal moment of epiphany, I realized I was incubating not a child, but a cause.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? – Jeremy Bentham

I have a curious affinity for circus stories: tales that unfold under the Big Top, or books starring carnival performers. Thus far 2015 has been a great year to be a fan of such stories. Kirsty Logan imagines a world vastly transformed by climate change in The Gracekeepers. After her parents were mauled to death by the captive bear featured in their act, North was forced to take up their show, alone – save for the bear’s cub, North’s only companion. Two orphans, traveling the world with the floating circus troupe known as Excalibur. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels follows Coney Island sideshow performer Odile Church as she travels to Manhattan in search of her sister, who fled The Church of Marvels when it burned to the ground, taking the sisters’ mother – and their livelihood – with them. In The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler weaves an imaginative tale about a librarian named Simon who comes into possession of an old book – a circus ledger dating back to the 1700s. Only by unraveling its secrets can he lift the curse that’s plagued his family for generations. And then there’s Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers – which I’m currently a quarter of the way into – a retelling of Romeo & Juliet featuring two rival families of performers, the Palomas (mermaids) and Corbeaus (tightrope walkers/tree climbers). There’s also The Wanderers, by Kate Ormand, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much (I DNF’ed at 41%), but I’ll get to that one in a moment.

I don’t think of my fascination as “curious” because it’s unusual – I’m no special snowflake when it comes to loving mermaids, fire breathers, acrobats, and shapeshifters – but because it’s often at odds with my beliefs. As an ethical vegan, I find animal circuses morally repugnant. Luckily, not all of these stories center on acts that exploit animals; and when they do, I try my best to compartmentalize. This is usually easier to do if the non-vegan stuff doesn’t blindside me; if I can anticipate the cruelty, I can buffer myself. And more often than not, the nonhuman animals are an afterthought, supporting characters at best, part of the set dressing at worst (or best, as it helps me to better set that aspect of the story aside).

In this vein, I was super-excited about Kate Ormand’s The Wanderers, as it features an animal circus that’s actually devoid of animals. Flo and her fellow performers are shapeshifters, hiding in plain sight. By day they travel from town to town, posing as regular people – carnies. At night they assume their animal shapes, performing for the unsuspecting crowd. I’d hoped against hope that the story might have an animal rights element to it, and it does – kind of. The circus is harassed by a group of well-meaning, PETA-like activists, protesting their (supposed) use of animals – horses, elephants, bears, and big cats – in the show. The elders deride them as busybodies, even as Flo wonders whether the activists would rally on their behalf, if only they knew the truth. (Spoiler alert: I most certainly would. Abso-fucking-lutely.) I DNF’ed at 41%, so I’m not sure where this story line went, but the lackluster way it was treated up to this point didn’t inspire much confidence. (Who knows? Maybe “PETA” rallies together and saves Flo and her friends from the hunters?)

This brings me to Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie, which is everything I’d hoped for in The Wanderers – and worlds more.

Menagerie takes place in an alternate universe that’s very similar to our own – but for one ginormous difference: cryptids are real. (Yes, that is the sound of me squeeee-ing!) Mermaids, werewolves, oracles, sphinxes, minotours, giants, trolls, centaurs, yetis, succubi, sirens, thunderbirds, jinn, griffins, harpies, fae, adlets, and satyrs. Cryptids, hybrids, and shapeshifters. Creatures from folklore and mythology, made real. Flesh and bone, scales and feathers. It is glorious – and also not.

In the United States, cryptids are – were – granted constitutional protection under the Sanctuary Act. Presumably, humanoid cryptids – particularly those who could communicate using human language – had many of the same rights as their h. sapiens cousins: the right to own property, marry, vote, etc. The more beast-like cryptids were allowed to roam the American wilderness, much like the fabled mustangs and bison before them.

This all came to a horrific end in 1986, with an event that came to be known as “the reaping.” In the span of a day, nearly one million children were massacred – murdered by their own parents, who later claimed no memories of the event. In each family, one child survived – all 300,000 of them born in March 1980. These children – “surrogates” – were changelings, secretly swapped out for the “real” children at birth, by Odin-knows-who. The surrogates were rounded up by the government, never to be heard from again. With no one group claiming responsibility for the massacre, society pinned it on the cryptid community collectively. (The general aura of fear and suspicion captured by Vincent is eerily reminiscent of Islamophobia in the wake of 9-11.) The Sanctuary Act was repealed, stripping cryptids of all their rights. Like other nonhuman animals, cryptids became property – items to be bought, sold, exploited, and discarded at will – almost overnight.

Enter: Metzger’s Menagerie, “The Largest Traveling Zoo in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Delilah Marlow – a once-aspiring crypto-vet and current bank teller in dusty Franklin, Oklahoma – is readying for a night on the town. Her well-meaning but otherwise clueless boyfriend Brandon surprises her with tickets to Metzger’s Menagerie, in town just in time for her to celebrate her 25th birthday. Despite the pit in her stomach – Delilah still vividly recalls visiting the Menagerie as a kid, and the three filthy little girls locked up in a petting zoo – she reluctantly agrees.

Roaming from exhibit to exhibit, Delilah finds herself both fascinated and repulsed. While delighted to finally see the objects of her study up close and in person, in all their magnificence and beauty, she’s also appalled by the subhuman conditions in which they’re kept. Her keen eyes spot what others are happy to ignore: circular burn marks, skin rubbed raw, missing spots of fur. Raw fear…and also an uncanny awareness. She recoils at her own sense of marvel; despite her innate compassion for these beings, Delilah herself is part of the problem, a passive participant in their exploitation and abuse.

Delilah’s ambivalence reaches a breaking point when she witnesses a handler torturing an emaciated, half-naked werewolf girl. Before she can say “Jeremy Bentham,” Delilah undergoes a shocking transformation: veins turning black with rage, hair floating and writhing like Medusa’s snakes, nails sprouting needle-thin points, which she uses to burrow into the sadistic handler’s brain. Delilah’s revenge continues even after she’s pulled free of the man: now in a trance, Jack grabs hold of the cattle prod he once wielded against little Geneviève, and turns it on himself.

For her trouble, Delilah is knocked over the head with a mallet. She wakes up in the Franklin County jail, where – her status downgraded from someone to something – she’s quickly sold off: to Metzger’s Menagerie, no less. The acquisition is a risky one for Metzger: an unidentified (and possibly all-new) cryptid species, Delilah could prove a big draw. Yet, having been raised as a human, she’ll be especially difficult to “break,” as “free range” cryptids often are. Her Big Ideas, as well as the circumstances that landed her in the menagerie, threaten to infect the other exhibits. Delilah may be the thing to save Metzger’s Menagerie from bankruptcy – or destroy it altogether.

Menagerie reads like a thinly veiled animal rights revenge fantasy. Needless to say, I fucking loved it. Every. Last. Bit. Love love love.

Metzger’s Menagerie is hell on wheels for its exhibits. When not on display, the cryptids are kept in tiny metal cages, with just a threadbare blanket to lie on. They’re made to wear rags, hosed down in full view of others, and fed a bland, often nutritionally deficient diet – just enough to keep them standing, nothing more. Underfed cryptids are forced to trade sex for outside food. (Pro tip: this is rape.) Disobedience is met with physical abuse. New exhibits are “broken” in every way imaginable: physical and sexual abuse, public humiliation, starvation. Their very identities are stripped away, right down to their names; they are only what Metzger’s wishes them to be.

Metzger’s routinely “breeds” its exhibits, only to sell off parents and children who are no longer needed or profitable. Families are split up: mothers separated from daughters, fathers from sons, husbands from wives. Even those families imprisoned in the same circus are granted precious little time together; children are sent to the “petting zoo,” where they’re tended to by human handlers. Geneviève occupies a cage next to her father Claudio, yet the two cannot even see each other from opposite sides of the solid metal paneling; he must rely on Delilah, located in the row of cages opposite, to perform a visual inspection of his daughter’s well-being. Which is declining rapidly in captivity, resulting in a mad dash by management to sell the girl off.

Crytpids not “lucky” enough to land in a traveling circus or private collection have an even worse fate in store, if you can imagine. Game reserves where they are hunted for sport; fetish brothels where johns are given full license to use and abuse them; research labs where they’re guaranteed to suffer until their dying breath. Many suspect that this is what became of the surrogates, though the government isn’t talking.

Look. This is a rather gruesome book that’s often difficult to read. The abuse of cryptids – physical, sexual, emotional, legal – is rampant: sometimes graphic, yet always horrifying. Judging from early reviews, this seems to be the main reason behind many of the 3-star ratings; some readers were simply put off by all the violence. (In one especially gruesome scene, a man is literally ripped apart, limb by limb, until bloody scraps of him litter the ground. I cheered. He was a sexual predator, okay.) And I get that. But here’s the thing: everything that was done to the cryptids? We subject nonhuman animals to every single minute of every single day, whether they’re exploited for food, clothing, entertainment, or research.

Unsanitary and inhumane living conditions. Unnatural and deficient diets. Forced pregnancy and birth. The disruption of family ties. Complete disregard for the animals’ behavioral and emotional needs. Physical punishment as a “training” method (they’re called “cattle prods” for a reason, people). Valuing profitability over well-being (or ethics). Objectification and othering.

Even sexual abuse has a precedent in the real world: undercover investigations have turned up multiple instances of animal agriculture workers raping animals; bestiality is legal in eleven U.S. states (and underpunished in all others, if you ask me); and crush fetishes are still a thing, though videos were outlawed in 2010. Not to mention, the entire system is predicated on the exploitation of animals’ reproductive systems, whether you’re making milk, eggs, or new animals to feed to the machine.

In summary: if you found Menagerie tough to stomach, I suggest you take a second look at your plate, your closet, and your bathroom counter.

Do I think that Vincent intended this as an animal rights treatise? I’m not naive or stupid; I realize that mine is an unpopular opinion. So, probably not. But that doesn’t mean that the parallels don’t exist, or in any way invalidate such a reading of the text.

Delilah’s inner monologue seems to argue against this at times, categorizing cryptids as more like human than nonhuman animals. For example, Claudio’s eyes have a human-like glint of self-awareness that Delilah finds lacking in wolves. (This was before she knew he could speak, natch.) However, she alternately cites intelligence and sentience as benchmarks for moral consideration, almost as though the two are interchangeable. They’re not: sentience is simply the ability to feel – the quality singled out by Jeremy Bentham in the oft-quoted line, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” By this measure, cryptids are equal to hens are equal gorillas are equal to humans.

Likewise, Delilah is appalled by the treatment of all cryptids: not just the humanoid ones, or those who can communicate using human language, but also those who are hybrids of two nonhuman animals – those who are more “animal” than “human.” This, too, suggests that her moral analysis cannot reasonably be limited to cryptid animals alone.

Interestingly, the plight of cryptids in this AU is characterized as worse than that of other nonhuman animals. While it’s true that we have a patchwork of laws that purport to protect animal welfare, in reality they do not prevent any of the abuses heaped upon cryptids. For example, the Animal Welfare Act – the only federal law governing the treatment of animals in research and exhibition – expressly excludes rats, mice, and birds, even though they constitute 95% of all animals used in research! Additionally, many practices that might be illegal if performed by an individual are perfectly okay if they’re part of “standard industry practices.” Enter: cattle prods, gestation crates, battery cages, tail and beak docking, force feeding, etc., etc., etc.

At the end of the day, animals are still considered property – and property has no rights. Just ask Claudio, Nalah, Zyanya, and Lenore. Or, better yet – Rudolph Metzger, who built his livelihood on this simple yet devastating fact.

While the animal rights angle (real or imagined; you be your own decider person) is what most excited me about Menagerie, it’s not the only aspect I enjoyed. It’s impossible for me to adequately articulate the love and appreciation I feel for this book. It caught me off guard, in the best way possible. Vincent’s writing is brutal, raw, and real – but also quite lovely, and with a righteous streak of rebellion that had me all but pumping my fist in the air. It’s not just a book, but an anthem, a call to arms, a reaffirmation of humanity: of the oppressed, the marginalized, the exploited. Your patron saint has a name, and it is Delilah.

Though we only get to meet a fraction of the “exhibits,” each individual is as unique and diverse as the species to which she belongs; each person has her own way of coping with the trauma of imprisonment and abuse. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, learned helpless – and yes, small acts of resistance in the face of tremendous odds. (Nonhuman animals also sometimes rebel against their oppressors; see, e.g., Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance.)

Curiously, I saw this book marketed as a romance in various places. It’s not – not really. There is a love story, but it’s not centered on the usual suspects; Delilah and Gallagher’s relationship is more of a partnership, a joining of forces or an alliance of warriors, than anything else. But Eryx and Rommily? Now there’s a love the likes of which you’ve never seen. Who doesn’t want to root for a cunning Minotaur and a damaged yet prescient oracle, hmmmm? (Seriously though, Eryx = BEST.)

I could go on and on, but ~2500 words and 3 hours is probably enough. Menagerie is an imaginative, captivating fantasy that’s as magical as the creatures that populate its pages. While AR folks are likely to harbor a deeper appreciation for the book’s more subversive ideas, it’s also suitable for a more general audience as well (assuming you can handle the violence and gore). An easy five stars, and I absolutely cannot wait for the sequel!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not so much. Given that the bulk of the characters are cryptids, the concept of racial diversity doesn’t always apply. (Plus it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a descriptor is of a character’s human or animal form.) Nalah is an ifrit, a class of Jinn in Arab culture; her skin is “golden bronze and nearly glowing.” Her princess, Adira, is originally from Mexico, the daughter of a sultan (though she’s described as pale and cold-looking). Zyanya, one of the cat shifters, has dark skin and orange-gold eyes.

Animal-friendly elements: OH MY DOG YES! See my review for a lengthy discussion.

 

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