Book Review: Spectacle (Menagerie #2) by Rachel Vincent (2017)

July 3rd, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Missing that certain indefinable something that made MENAGERIE so special.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and forced abortion.)

“This one isn’t like the others,” the woman—his wife?—said, and the sharp edge in her voice could have cut glass.

“I’m like them in every way that matters,” I insisted.

I frowned, studying the dryad. She looked different from when they’d taken her the afternoon before, but I couldn’t…

Her hair. She’d had several beautiful whitish blooms blossoming in her hair.

Now those blossoms were gone.

One of the other ladies knelt next to her and laid a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder, but the nymph turned on her, teeth gnashing. Mossy-green eyes flashed beneath the tiny woody tendrils growing in place of her eyelashes.

“Oh…” Simra breathed, and I turned to her with a questioning look. “They got rid of it.”

“It?”

“The baby.”

“She was pregnant?” I whispered, horrified. “Vandekamp ended it?”

“His wife. She won’t let the ‘monsters’ breed.”

The only thing I could imagine worse than being forced to end the pregnancy was how Magnolia might have gotten pregnant in the first place.

When Menagerie debuted in 2015, I devoured an early copy faster and with more passion than a piping hot bowl of Daiya cheese sauce. It alternately had me squealing in delight, pumping my fist in the air, and squirming in my seat as if a whole mess of fire ants had set up residence there. More than anything, Menagerie inspired a jaw-dropping sense of disbelief: am I really reading what I think I’m reading here? I then went on to spend most of the next five days writing one of my most epic reviews ever. (Rivaled only by my treatise on The Female of The Species.)

Since then, I’ve read it several more times, including on audiobook, which incidentally spawned one of my favorite video recordings of one of my favorite rescue dogs, Mags (she of The Hunger Games fame; her son’s name is Finnick).

When the sequel was finally (!) released into the wild, I promptly requested an ARC on NetGalley…and then proceeded to sit on it for more than a year. I was just so scared to touch the damn thing! While Menagerie was most likely meant as an allegory for the treatment of Muslims (and brown people as a whole) after 9/11, it was impossible for me not to read it as a story about animal rights, however unintentional. (In the vegan community, we call this “accidentally vegan,” like Oreos. Yum!)

Every mistreatment of the cryptids in Delilah’s world – both the humanoid and more “bestial” ones – has an obvious and devastating corollary here in the real world, in our interactions with nonhuman animals. From forced impregnation to the separation of parents and children; the exhibition of animals in zoos and circuses; vivisection, including for the most trivial of reasons, like developing new household cleaners; physical punishment under the guise of training; and even crush videos and bestiality. And while we dismiss these atrocities since they’re “only animals,” Vincent nails the crux of the issue in Menagerie: it’s not intelligence that counts, or DNA, or one’s physical approximation to humans. The only thing that matters is sentience: a being’s ability to feel pain (or joy) and suffer.

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

The cryptids in Menagerie are indeed sentient – as are the billions of nonhuman animals we enslave, torture, and kill every year. It’s impossible not to draw parallels.

And yet. Given that I’m 99.9% positive these parallels were unplanned, I worried that Vincent would walk them back in the sequel; undo some of the amazing arguments put forth in Menagerie. And so I hemmed and hawed and put Spectacle on the back burner until I could stand the suspense no further.

The good news is that my fears were largely unfounded. While the moral and philosophical underpinnings of Delilah’s furiae – so eloquently (though not imperfectly) laid out in Menagerie – remain mostly unstated in Spectacle, they are not challenged in any way. Delilah and her compatriots are the victims: victims of a cruel and inhumane society that dehumanizes, objectifies, and others them. Because humans are afraid. Because it elevates them. Because they can. Because there is a profit to be made by doing so.

The bad news? Spectacle is just an okay book. Entertaining enough, sure, but nowhere near as revolutionary as Menagerie.

After several months on the run, operating Metzger’s Menagerie like it’s just a regular old traveling circus, earning cash monies and buying up/rescuing fellow cryptids where they can, Delilah and company are found out, captured, and sent off to one of the “worse” places: the Savage Spectacle. Owned by one of Delilah’s former professors, Willem Vandekamp, Spectacle rents out its cryptids by the hour. Clients are free to do whatever, as long as they’re willing to pay for the privilege.

Some of the more dangerous cryptids are forced to compete in cage matches, fights to the death (on which spectators place bets, of course; dog fighting, horse racing, or horse fighting, anyone?). When the captives have outlived their usefulness – which happens in a matter of months or years, much as with exploited animals (think: battery hens) in the real world – they are unleashed in the Spectacle’s acreage as part of the corporation’s captive hunts (again, IRL examples abound!).

Perhaps worst of all, the captives are prevented from fighting back by high-tech collars. One swipe on a cell phone app, and the handlers at Savage Spectacle can administer a shock, paralyze a cryptid, or even strip them of their voice. The collars also work on a biological level to control a cryptid’s special powers: “Which means the sirens can’t sing, the succubi can’t seduce, the shifters can’t shift and the beasts can’t lift a hand in aggression. Until we want them to.” Luckily, Delilah is (technically) human, so her sense of justice and retribution remains intact.

Establishments like the Savage Spectacle were whispered about in hushed, fearful tones from behind the bars of Metzger’s Menagerie. They were the boogie men that Metzger used to keep his captives in line: act up, and you’ll end up at a place even worse than here. But is it? Really?

While rape in the form of sexual trafficking is rampant at the Spectacle, rape also occurred at Metzger’s: he forced “exhibits” to breed so that he could sell their offspring. Instead of forced abortion, as at Spectacle, Metzger’s had forced pregnancy and birth. Captives were not intentionally murdered at the carnival, but they were neglected and sometimes shipped off to places where they would be killed, such as research institutions or game preserves.

Is it really possible to rank oppressions?

I feel like Spectacle is Vincent’s attempt to up the ante, to create a world more shocking and appalling than even Metzger’s. And I don’t think that’s possible, because again: how do you compare atrocities? It’s all terrible and horrifying and makes anyone with an ounce of humanity not want to live on this planet anymore.

Additionally, the result feels formulaic and not nearly as original and groundbreaking as Menagerie: Delilah (and her friends) is captured; she suffers unspeakable abuse; she leads a revolt and ferries her fellow victims to (relative) safety. We’ve already done this, okay? Give me a fracking political revolution already. Cryptids will only be “safe” when they are free; when society recognizes them as individuals, not property: someones, not somethings – and treats them accordingly. We need an equal rights amendment for nonhumans, okay. (Worldwide, because otherwise it’s useless for cryptids who have far-reaching migratory patterns. YES, I HAVE THOUGHT THIS THROUGH, WHY DO YOU ASK.) The first book convinced us of this, so why double down on the witness to suffering thing?

Spectacle is missing that wild, indefinable spark that made Menagerie a tour de force. It’s entertaining enough, though hardly memorable. None of Rommily’s premonitions sent shivers down my spine; no one scene saw me jumping out of my chair with excitement and anticipation.

Menagerie…did things to me. Made me feel all kinds of crazy and unexpected feels. It will sit with me, forever: weighing on my soul, dancing in my heart. It’s a fantastic riot, a call to arms. A goddamn life philosophy. An impossible act to follow, probably, so perhaps I shouldn’t hold it against Vincent too harshly.

Fury popped up on NetGalley a week ago. As soon as I submit this review, I’ll be putting in my request. Fingers tentatively crossed.

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

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