Book review: The Trilogy of Two, by Juman Malouf

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Juman Malouf’s The Trilogy of Two is a refreshingly comforting middle grade book — it’s fantastical, it’s creative, but it’s also very sweet and to a certain extent sort of delightfully innocent, completely with absolutely delightful illustrations. It’s what I suspect The Night Circus would be like if it was written for the middle grade set — a comparison others have been making as well — and it’s also like the Chronicles of Narnia but without all the painfully laden and heavy Christian overtones (also, side bonus, sans racism). I highly recommend it for young readers looking for some fun, juicy fantasy to sink their teeth into, and if you’re an older reader who gets a kick out of middle grade, you might enjoy it too!

Broken into three parts, The Trilogy of Two covers the lives of Sonja and Charlotte, identical twins who are part of a traveling circus. In a way that rings deeply true to circus culture, everyone in the community is closely interconnected and the girls — the adopted children of Tatty, the tattooed lady — are sort of like the pets of the entire circus. At least, until they begin maturing and their almost preternatural talent for music begins to be accompanied by surreal happenings — like levitating the audience under the big top. Suddenly, the circus turns on them, and they retreat into the protection of Tatty’s caravan in dismay.

All of this takes place in the context of a nearly apocalyptic society split into Cities and Outskirts. The Cities consist of massive skyscrapers wreathed in industrial smog, while the Outskirts host society’s flotsam and jetsam, graveyards and dumps and those scrabbling for existence. The girls live on the Outskirts, but when the opportunity to go to a school for the gifted arises, they decide to attend an audition to show off their skills — and it launches them on an adventure in which they learn that magic is truly real, there’s a lot more to their adopted mother than meets the eye, and the world is much bigger than they could have ever imagined.

As a tattooed person, I of course immediately have an affinity for a book that features a fellow tattooed person so prominently, especially because her ink becomes such an integral part of the storytelling. It’s kind of hard to express the emotional connection some of us experience with our ink — the way it acts as a sort of map of ourselves — to people who aren’t tattooed, but in this case, Tatty’s art takes on entirely new levels. She’s also a participant in a very old tradition, as tattooed ladies have a long history and have always been a source of fascination, even today, when the sight of women with full body suits is still unusual and women with stunning tattoos are head turning. Though freaking is declining, women and others still work on the circus industry showcasing their bodies and unusual talents (or their unusual appearance), and it was really great to see a book picking up that tradition and running with it much as The Night Circus did, with both books delving into the mystery and captivation of the circus in both the conventional sense and the metaphysical one.

I also adore middle grade (and older) books in which people travel through various worlds and meet fascinating people and creatures. It was why I loved Narnia so much as a child, even though as I matured I began to feel, shall we say, a tad uncomfortable with some of the overtones of the books. (The ‘oh, Aslan is Jesus’ revelation that comes to us all was a turning point in my life.) It’s why I continue to love The Phantom Tollbooth and why I had such a deep affection for Gulliver’s Travels. There’s something deeply exciting about the thought that all these amazing worlds exist just a step away from our own — they’re fantastical, but still fully reachable, and in some cases they spill right over into our own environment.

The relationship between the girls is also fascinating; Malouf didn’t make the common mistake of trying to let the environment and the plot carry the book. Sonja and Charlotte read as very real people with very different personalities and lives as they grow older, grow apart, and struggle with each other. I can’t speak to the authenticity of the storytelling, not having grown up with siblings, but it feels like a very real depiction of what it’s like to finally start to age out of your family as you develop your own personality and priorities. As much as this is a book about fantastical adventures, after all, it’s also a book about young love and coming to understand yourself, following in the time-tested theme of middle grade as a tool for exploring breaking points and new beginnings for people of a certain age.

It’s interesting to see the two drift apart and come together, to understand their magic and explore how it works separately and apart. And despite the fact that much of the book is very sweet and innocent (not in a cloying way), there is a bit of a dark edge to it, and that really comes out at the end as we see how their magic truly works when their full power is unleashed. Malouf managed to tell that story very delicately, to show how incredible power can be a valuable tool in addition to a sometimes frightening one if it’s not used responsibly.