“Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by Neon Yang (2020 Ignyte Awards)

The Ignyte Awards have come and gone, but I haven’t quite finished covering the short stories and novelettes that got nominated. Today, I’m looking at the Best Novelette contender “Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by Neon Yang…

The main character of this story, Lynette, grew up in the circus, her mother being a performer. After she was orphaned as a teenager, Lynette was left at the mercy of a harsh environment: “The other women in the circus tried to project me as much as they could, but I eventually found out what people were willing to do to young girls when they no longer had the protection of a lion tamer.” Alfous, an escape artist, tries to rape her; when she struggles against him, he throws her into a water tank. Nearly drowning, Lynette meets a strange sight:

I thought I was going to die, until I saw that there was a boy in the water. He looked my age, with dark eyes and dark hair and skin yellow as the moon. “You can do it,” he said. I didn’t know him, but seeing I wasn’t alone calmed my panic.

After surviving her ordeal, Lynette finds that the mysterious boy has followed her. Every reflective surface she looks into shows not her own face, but the hollow-eyes and discoloured skin of Mirror Boy. He becomes her confidant, with the girl speaking to Mirror Boy every day about the stresses and anxieties she faces in her life.

Time passes and Lynette leaves both the circus and Mirror Boy behind her, settling down to a new life with a flatmate and six cats. She persuades herself that Mirror Boy was no more than an imaginary friend, something that she dreamed up to help cope with her life. Then, ten years after she saw him last, Mirror Boy returns to Lynette, and he has a warning for her: a serial killer is active in the area, and Lynette may well become his next victim.

The theme of imaginary friends or childhood fantasies bubbling into a character’s adult life is common enough, but “Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” turns out to have a more playful attitude towards its supernatural themes than might first be expected.

Mirror Boy reveals that he has had other “refuges” besides Lynette, but they are all dead, picked off by the serial killer who has the ultimate goal of eliminating Mirror Boy. Looking for help with her bizarre situation, Lynette goes to an occultist, Chrissa, who concludes that Mirror Boy is a wraith: a particular classification of spirit with its own set of distinct characteristics.

And so Mirror Boy, rather than the product of Lynette’s psyche, turns out to have arisen from an entire taxonomy of spirits in different varieties. Indeed, Lynette’s own father was a spirit, or so she has been told:

I’ve never been afraid of spirits. My mother when she was alive, used to put me on her knee and tell me that my father was one. A boy with lips like coral and skin like ice, who smelled of ocean and evanesced from her bed in the light of the next morning, never to be seen again.

Also present are two godlike entities, Kraken and Leviathan. The existence of such beings is hinted at early in the story, after the disappearance of the rapist Alfous – “The rumour around the circus was that he’d been sent to feed Kraken, hungry in the sludgy deep” – and they continue to haunt the narrative, mentioned without the full explanation that accompanies Chrissa’s examination of Mirror Boy.

“Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a story that freely and confidently slips from one thing to another, making a point out of defying expectations. A narrative about death and abuse slides into cheerful whimsy; a tale about the psychological state of a troubled young woman becomes an exercise in detailing precisely how different types of spirit work.

Character focus shifts and changes, as well: what starts out as the story of the circus girl becomes the story of Mirror Boy, and even includes a sequence written from the first-person perspective of the serial killer – the hunter.

Despite this shifting, the story holds together. This is partly due to the familiar structure of the murder mystery that runs through the narrative, but it is also due to the strength of characterisation. Lynette is a well-drawn character, with an intriguing backstory and an engaging viewpoint on the world; while the reader will be tugged along by the supernatural mystery, it is the personality of the protagonist, shaped by her tumultuous past, that lends depth to the story.

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