The opening pages of Menagerie hold so much promise that it seems impossible it’ll turn into a bad book, but it does. Rachel Vincent introduces a world like ours, but filled with magical creatures called crypids and an alternate recent history that pits humans against their magical counterparts. Some cryptids are familiar mythological creatures like minotaurs, gryphons, and kelpies, while others are new to Vincent’s world. Due to “the reaping,” an event supposedly perpetrated by the crypids that saw millions of human children disappear, the U.S. government revoked the rights of cryptids, forcing them into hiding or enslavement. So when protagonist Delilah visits Metzger’s Menagerie, she’s filled with awe at the creatures themselves, and with rage when she sees their miserable living conditions, kept in cages and forced to perform.
There are so many creatures that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of which is which, a problem compounded by Vincent’s penchant for introducing new creatures at exactly the time the plot has use for them, after which they return to the background they’ve supposedly been in the whole time. There’s also an inconsistent use of magic and mythology throughout; while some creatures come straight out of Greek mythology, others are seemingly just shape-shifters, and still others are something Vincent doesn’t bother to fit into the existing mythic-magical world she seems to be trying to create. Delilah is one of those anomalies: A fury rises in her when she sees a wolf girl suffering abuse at the hands of her menagerie captor, and when she feels that fury she turns into… something. Never bothering to fully explain what the main character is and what she’s capable of when in her fury mode, the fresh premise of the world falls more and more maddeningly short as Vincent’s story unfolds.
The magic isn’t the only aspect that gets short shrift in Menagerie. Each character can be described with one word. Delilah is strong. The carnival workers are cruel. The mother is loving. The most interesting character is Delilah’s handler, compelling only because he has a secret. But he’s still one-note, his single defining characteristic being physically strong. Delilah’s carnival counterparts—a roving cast of animal-human hybrids, oracles, minotaurs, sirens, and succubi—are all described not by their personalities (they don’t have any), actions (they don’t do anything), or motivations (simply: they don’t like being enslaved), but by the abuse they experience. They simply exist in their carnival captivity, living under a constant stream of physical violence, rape, and hunger. Vincent spends a lot of time detailing abuse they suffer but is oddly reticent to specifically name the horrors these creatures face. She’s especially hesitant to call a rape a rape, preferring euphemisms like “nighttime visits” and “forcing himself on her.”
There’s a good story buried deep underneath the underdeveloped characters and half-baked mythology of the world, but it takes a dedicated reader to invest in a story that’s more interested in getting from point A to point B than in exploring characters’ motivations for literally anything they do. The story takes place at a circus, a fertile setting to explore tensions in the human psyche if there ever was one. But Vincent refuses to spend enough time making the menagerie a place of creeping atmosphere. There are so many missed opportunities. This is especially true in the book’s second half, when a string of things just happen, resembling less of a plot than a series of events thrown together to give the false impression of forward momentum, which builds to a ridiculous death scene and hasty denouement. Announced as a first of a series, the ending is unsurprisingly unsatisfying.