Theatre of Curious Acts
by Cate Gardner
Hadley Rille Books (2011)
The first page of every Cate Gardner story is a rabbit hole, through which you find yourself falling into a wonderland of her design, and Theatre of Curious Acts offers a deeper plunge into the abyss of Cate's imagination than anything of hers I've read yet.
This short novel tells the story of five soldiers cast out of one hell, of course being the Great War, and thrown into an entirely different one--fewer bullets, but more monsters. The spotlight character, Daniel, winds up on a journey with four brothers in arms; Swan, Harvey, George, and Ken; as they must navigate their way through a surreal nightmare inside the Theatre of Curious Acts. The theatre has a surreal nature to it, as Daniel is initially there to take in a show, but finds himself whisked onstage and into a netherworld where he and his friends are at risk of becoming trapped, or possibly destroyed. That's because the theatre sits at the end of the world and there are powers in play that would like very much to see that happen.
The interwoven nature of Daniel's traumatic and horrific experiences in war for Britain with the supernaturally haunting aspects of what he finds inside the theatre felt surreal while reading this book. There are moments where what's happening feels murkier, encased in a shroud that only lets you see very subtle imagery or emotions, while there are moments that soon follow that feel epic in scope with a blazing intensity you might expect if the Sun got too close.
As much as the relationships Daniel had with his fellow soldiers were engaging, especially his somewhat contentious relationship with Swan who comes off as a dashing cad most of the time, it was the interactions he and the others have with the Four Horsemen--or in this case, the Four Horsewomen--or maybe it's Horsepersons. Each of the four carry such brightly contrasted personalities and have their own intentions behind what's happening, they tended to steal the show. Olivia was a particularly striking character, but I must confess to enjoying the Rowan character a bit more. Maybe because her tone was a bit more deliciously caustic.
In any case, it's a rich and undeniably bleak tapestry that Cate paints with her prose throughout this story. I'm definitely going to have to revisit it again, and hopefully glean a little more the second go round as a reader who has walked that path with its characters once before.
If you like fantasy with a dark edge and a romantic, albeit desolate, air throughout, this is a book you ought to consider.