When the audience take their seats at Crillick’s Variety Theatre looking forward to an evening of entertainment featuring the Great Amazonia, a ‘savage queen’ captured in Africa, little do they know the act is a fraud. The ‘Great Amazonia’ is actually Zillah, a young mixed-race Londoner who has never been to Africa in her life. Zillah can see nothing wrong with what she is doing; she enjoys being the headline act, she’s being paid for her work and she’s making some powerful new friends, among them Vincent, Viscount Woodward, who is setting her up as his mistress. It’s not until she meets Lucien Winters, an African merchant and former slave, that she begins to question her actions and wonder whether there is a better life she could be leading.
Then, her manager Marcus Crillick unveils a new act – the ‘Leopard Lady’ – and Zillah’s eyes are opened to the full extent of Crillick’s cruelty and the way she and others are being exploited for financial gain. When the Leopard Lady goes missing, Zillah becomes convinced that she is being held captive somewhere and sets out to search for her – a search that will take her across Victorian London, from the bustling dockyards to the slums of St Giles and the elegant parlours of the upper classes. Meanwhile Zillah must choose between Vincent and Lucien and decide how she wants her future to unfold.
I enjoyed Theatre of Marvels, although it did seem very similiar at first to Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders, another novel about the exploitation of ‘circus attractions’. However, this one is written from a very different perspective, allowing Lianne Dillsworth to explore different themes such as racial and class inequality and slavery. The thousands of black and mixed race people who lived in Victorian London are often ignored in fiction set in that period, but Dillsworth gives them a voice here through the characters of Zillah, Lucien and others. Zillah is a particularly interesting heroine as she is clearly struggling with her identity throughout the novel, feeling that she doesn’t truly fit in with one community or the other and trying to decide who she is and what she wants.
Although I felt that some of the characters, particularly the villain Marcus Crillick and Zillah’s friend and rival Ellen, were too thinly drawn, there were others I found much more interesting. I was intrigued by Vincent Woodward, as there were times when I thought he must genuinely care about Zillah, but I doubted from the beginning that he would have the courage to defy convention and commit to a future with her. I could only see their relationship ending unhappily. On the other hand, Lucien seemed to have a deeper understanding of Zillah and much more personal integrity, yet I never really managed to warm to him. However, I thought I had predicted how the story would end and was taken by surprise because it wasn’t quite what I’d expected!
While I would have liked to have seen more of the Leopard Lady and to have heard some of her story from her own point of view, I did enjoy getting to know Zillah. This was an absorbing and surprisingly quick read and I’ll be looking out for more books from Lianne Dillsworth.
Theatre of Marvels is published in the UK on Thursday 28th April 2022. Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 19/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.
This is also my contribution to Reading the Theatre 2022 hosted by Lory of Entering the Enchanted Castle.