Premise: Vaudevillian pianist George Carole has an amazing gift for his age. At sixteen he plays with a variety of artists, but he eventually catches up with the troupe leader he believes is his father: Heironomo Silenus. What he discovers is that, even for vaudeville, his father’s troupe performs strange acts that cannot really be explained, and that those performances change the people and the world around them in remarkable ways.
What George learns as he follows Silenus is that they too are on the run because George is not the only one chasing them. The troupe is toying with ancient and dangerous secrets, to the extent that the very fabric of existence is in danger. Light and music are important for the universe, and it is these things that Silenus seeks. But those chasing him want them too, and they will destroy everything in their way to get them.
George soon learns that his gift is more important than he thought, and the secrets the troupe is holding and chasing are of the utmost importance for everyone and everything.
Themes: As George seeks to know his father, the theme of family is explored in depth and from many angles. When he learns that Silenus is his father, the man turns out to be nothing he expected. His ideals of family are broken and the relationship he sought becomes more difficult to piece together.
With the bold task of explaining existence, The Troupe ponders the questions a creation has for its Creator, however that might look. Explaining life and death and the reasons for everything, this grand undertaking of the ultimate question becomes the reason for the troupe to continue their performances. Each member of Silenus’ troupe asks these questions in their own way.
Grief from loss simmers to the top as a theme of The Troupe. With strange occurrences around every corner, the motive becomes clear why the troupe continues on as is does, running from secrets and searching for answers. Silenus leads his crew on a seemingly wild goose chase for those answers.
Pros: Not only does Bennett create compelling characters, he infuses them with flaws and conflicts. But most of all he summons with them strong emotions. Robert Jackson Bennett does something in The Troupe that is uncommon: he made me feel things. At separate times, I laughed, I was fearful, and genuinely sad, all in the same book. We read realistic and common interactions between the characters, such as a boy’s infatuation with a girl for the first time, a father’s love for his child, and a man’s obsession for a goal. There are so many different magical elements here that the reader is left wondering if this really is the world we live in, with its dark corners and pinpoints of light.
Cons: There is quite a bit of profanity in The Troupe, most of it coming from Silenus, though it is fitting for the harshness of his character. There were so many fantastical things thrown into this magical book that there were a few times I got a bit lost and questioned the need for a couple of those elements. The story has some horror-like qualities that lead the reader into a somewhat depressing direction.
Recommendations: In The Troupe, Robert Jackson Bennett has done something that few authors have done with great success. I feel about The Troupe similar to the way I felt about reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell the first time. While not quite as comprehensively historical as Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece, the magical elements and complete characters created a similar-feeling world. It is a magical story with so many twists and turns with realistic, emotion-evoking interactions between characters, I was ready to go back and read it again as soon as I turned the last page.