Review | Smiler’s Fair – Rebecca Levene

About the Book

Yron the moon god died, but now he’s reborn in the false king’s son. His human father wanted to kill him, but his mother sacrificed her life to save him. He’ll return one day to claim his birthright. He’ll change your life.

He’ll change everything.

Smiler’s Fair: the great moving carnival where any pleasure can be had, if you’re willing to pay the price. They say all paths cross at Smiler’s Fair. They say it’ll change your life. For five people, Smiler’s Fair will change everything.

In a land where unimaginable horror lurks in the shadows, where the very sun and moon are at war, five people – Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a murdered nobleman, who in desperation commits an act that will haunt her forever. Dae Hyo, the skilled warrior, who discovers that a lifetime of bravery cannot make up for a single mistake. Eric, who follows his heart only to find that love exacts a terrible price. Marvan, the master swordsman, who takes more pleasure from killing than he should. And Krish, the humble goatherd, with a destiny he hardly understands and can never accept – will discover just how much Smiler’s Fair changes everything.

480 pages (kindle)
Published in 2014
Buy the book

This book first came out in 2014, and only in the UK with a publisher I did not, at the time, have connections with. Reader, I was so incredibly bummed that I did not get an ARC of this book. I heard amazing things about it, and I just really, really wanted to read it. I told myself I’d remember to read it when it was released in the US and I just… forgot… until a friend mentioned it a few weeks ago. I nabbed a copy on Amazon and plowed through this book so fast it was incredible. 

Smiler’s Fair is dark, with some extremely unique worldbuilding. I will say, if you aren’t a fan of dark books, of grimdark specifically, you might want to steer clear of this one. The book itself seems to be pretty polarizing. When I scroll through reviews, the people who tend to really enjoy grimdark seem to love it, and the people who don’t… don’t, so keep that in mind. 

The worldbuilding is really where this book shines, and it shines in a different way than you might expect. Let me explain.

There’re some incredibly unique aspects of development here that really intrigued me, from societies that are constantly on the move, to cities pulled by mammoths, and Smiler’s Fair itself. I enjoyed seeing how the author used magic and her world as two forces that impacted each other. Also, there are just so many different people in this world, and each different group has its own god, so there are lots of gods too. Cults and the like spring up. It was fascinating to see how Levene gathered all that together to create subtle (and not so subtle) friction throughout. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and Levine had a pretty good grasp of how, if you pull one thread somewhere, then it’s going to impact something somewhere else. In a world a fluid and moveable as this one, it really added a lot of nuance and texture to the book’s development that I truly appreciated. 

However, there aren’t a lot of details about the fair itself. Levene doesn’t really lean into descriptions, and they are used sparingly. Sometimes it’s hard to get a “visual” of where the characters are. At first, this frustrated me. It made the novel feel a bit disjointed since I couldn’t “see” everything I wanted to see. Then, the further I got into the story, the more I realized what an innovative choice this was on the author’s part. The fair itself almost seems to be a different thing to everyone who goes there, and in this book, Levine is using it as a vehicle to connect a handful of characters that have nothing really to do with each other. I felt like the decision to not lean too heavily into descriptions in favor of leaving a lot of this open to interpretation actually made the fair a bit more powerful and immersive in the end. Odd to say that, but I think she made the right decision here. 

In the style of epic/grimdark fantasy, this book is told from numerous points of view. The perspectives, at first, aren’t really attached to each other. They read more like stories tied together in a world they share. It takes time for the threads to bind together and for the characters to start telling one story, instead of a few different stories, if that makes sense. The benefit of this is, each character gets his or her own time, and you’ll become invested in them before they become invested in each other. When things really start rolling, you’ll be rooting for people. That being said, in the style of grimdark fantasy, the characters are darker. All of them flawed and emotionally tortured somehow, with pasts they drag around with them. They are loaded down with baggage and while I absolutely love that sort of thing, not everyone wants to read books about potentially unsympathetic characters. 

I liked all the characters for one reason or another, but Krish’s personal growth over the story really impressed me. By the end, he’s broken the boundaries of his former life and has perfectly set himself up for whatever comes next. While I do think some of the characters could have used a little more depth, Krish’s evolution shows what Levene is capable of, and that really excites me. Is the book perfect? No, but the author made some very real choices in how she spun her yarn that made characters like Krish shine. 

I need to take a moment to address diversity as well, because in this book, Levene has taken care to even out gender roles and sexuality so both men and women are equal in that regard, and it was really a breath of fresh air and very well done. 

The plot itself is an interesting blend of epic fantasy and dark fantasy. There are some graphic scenes, some dark emotional depths, some gray morality, and situations that might make you uncomfortable. Paired with this, is a vibrant magical system, an absolutely fascinating world unlike I’ve ever seen before, and some characters you’ll love (or love to hate, depending). Also, add a dash of cults and serial killers and you’ve got a book basically written for me. The end of Smiler’s Fair is a perfect setup for the next installment of the series, which I plan on devouring ASAP. But there are elements (I dare say, tropes) that you’ll recognize from epic fantasy. A “chosen on” (of sorts), prophecy and the like. Touchstones to help guide you through.  

You might see the cover and expect something light and fluffier, but this isn’t that. It’s not young adult, nor is it light and fluffy. This is a brutal, dark world full of flawed, sharp characters. The morality is murky, and there are very few redeeming qualities. This is how I like my dark fantasy. I want it to be brutal and knife-sharp. I want it to cut. But not everyone likes that sort of thing, so be aware going into it. I would say this one is solidly grimdark, and if you aren’t a grimdark reader, you might want to pass it by. 

But oh, grimdark readers, this is such a fantastic start to a series. It’s not perfect, but it’s really, really good and it’s absolutely worth your time. 

4/5 stars