Between Jon Berkeley’s The Palace of Laughter and Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman, my bedtime reading has taken a bit of a lyrical turn. Both books are young fantasies which revel in the power of their imagination, with the protagonists facing their plots accompanied to the sounds of reels or pipe organ. Plots meander in deft and complicated paths.
Focusing on The Palace of Laughter, author Jon Berkeley has created an intriguingly dark world that protagonist Miles Wednesday stands up to, and triumphs against. The story starts with Miles Wednesday waking up in the middle of the night in his home — an abandoned barrel in the fields outside his home town of Larde. The homeless orphan is there to witness the arrival of a mysterious and sinister circus. As the circus waits until morning to greet the townsfolk of Larde, Miles receives another visitor: a talking Bengal tiger which, in spite of (or, probably, because of) his supernatural intelligence, is not a part of the circus. The tiger has an affection for circus people (which is why he chooses not to eat Miles, even though Miles has never been in a circus in his life), but he has no affection for this circus, run by the ambitious circusmaster, the Great Cortado.
His conversation with the Bengal tiger leads Miles to investigate the circus more closely the next day, which of course gets him into big trouble. Sneaking in without a ticket, he’s hiding beneath the bleachers when he witnesses a miraculous acrobatic act by a girl who looks no older than six. The act goes wrong and the girl falls from a great height, during which she reveals a set of wings that allow her to land safely.
There is no doubt that the girl, who calls herself Little, is a prisoner of the circus and, after a run-in with the Great Cortado, Miles sets about rescuing her. This and other events set Miles and Little on a path in pursuit of the evil circus as it winds its way across the countryside, towards the mysterious Palace of Laughter.
Why is Little, a song angel, trapped on Earth? Can she and Miles rescue her angel mentor Silverpoint, who is still a prisoner of the circus? What is the Great Cortado’s plan, and why is he bringing people from all over the country to his special performance in the Palace of Laughter? How is the intelligent tiger related? And just why is Miles living in a barrel? Who was the individual who laid him at an orphanage’s door eleven years ago?
Most, but not all, of these questions will be answered during the course of this book and, if that frustrates you, get used to it, because that is how author Jon Berkeley rolls.
The plot of The Palace of Laughter doesn’t develop so much as it meanders. Miles and Little roam the countryside much the same way Cortado’s circus does, encountering new people in new towns in incidents which, at first glance, don’t seem to be wholly related to each other. Once Miles and Little arrive in the big city, Miles ends up falling in with a street gang called the Halfheads. After some initial antagonism, they end up providing Miles with critical support, but there’s little that connects them to the rest of the plot. Rather, they are another example of the rich and detailed world that Berkeley has created.
And this is the great strength of The Palace of Laughter: there is so much imagination on display here. Indeed, Berkeley packs in so many different characters, settings and other elements, he risks overwhelming the reader. Not every plot element gets explained or resolved, but you can tell that Berkeley has had so much fun exploring this world that you can’t help but be swept along.
His other strength is his characterization. The story would not work without Miles Wednesday. The boy is intelligent, resourceful, and determinedly optimistic. In spite of being abandoned at an orphanage that turned out to be a horror, he doesn’t let it get him down. He lives in a barrel now, despite being only eleven with no obvious means of support, because he’s escaped the nearby orphanage so many times, they’ve given up hauling him back. In spite of being surrounded by many complacent or self-centred adults, he manages to make friends through his honesty and willingness to help.
And then there is Little, who quickly falls into the role of Miles’ little sister, even though she is a “song angel” of more than 400 years. She anchors Miles, and gives him something to fight for. Berkeley performs a fine balance between youthful innocence and angelic power. Her burgeoning friendship with Miles is one of the highlights of the book.
Along Miles and Little’s trek across the countryside, the two encounter numerous supporting characters, some benevolent, some not, but all of them fresh, interesting and slightly zany. There’s the eccentric Lady Partridge who lives in two trees. There’s the bombastic blind explorer Mr. Baltinglass who provides help at two critical moments. There’s Genghis, chief henchman to the Great Cortado, who likes to garden and wear yellow socks. Then there’s Cortado himself, who ultimately proves to be more than just your stock villain. These and other characters appear and sometimes re-appear to help and hinder Miles and Little’s quest, and most (though not all) are tied together at the end.
If you like your stories tightly plotted and constructed with the precision of a Swiss watch, The Palace of Laughter is not for you. But if you’re happy to revel in the sheer imagination of an author having fun with his world, you’ll be impressed by what The Palace of Laughter can do. It’s well worth your time to read.