Imagine that the Greek gods now wander the Midwest as a third-rate circus troop, their powers, and memories of past glories, faded...that's the central premise of Juggler in the Wind (The Wand Bearer Trilogy: Part One), by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin (Chiron Books, 2010, YA, 202 pages).
In the small town in western Kansas, where 14 year-old Randy lives with his single mother, life has a certain monotony to it. But when the Circus Olympus makes an unheralded arrival in town, and sets up their tent in an empty pasture near Randy's house, everything changes. Drawn to the motley circus by a powerful compulsion, and despite his mother's passionate conviction that he should stay away from it, Randy cuts school to see the show...and finds himself, almost without thinking about it, hitching a ride in one of the circus wagons and heading out of town.
Randy doesn't understand why his mother has taken such a scunner to the circus, but it's clear that it's out of the ordinary. As circus acts go, the performances might not, at first, seem all that great, but it becomes clear that extraordinary things are taking place, and that the performers are not what they seem to be. They are, in fact, the Greek gods and goddess, fallen on hard times.
Money is short in the circus, and to make matters worse, they've fallen afoul of the law. They push their old bus faster toward the west, not quite sure where to go. Nor are they at all certain, any more, who they even are themselves, and what they are doing with their immortal lives. As he travels with the ragtag crew of aging performers, Randy begins to dream, strange dreams that seem to come from Dionysus himself, and he begins as well to find that he has a preternatural skill for juggling. But Randy, too, is uncertain of his purpose, and the circus is falling apart. As the dry, hot winds blow, the gods fall into a stupor, and the law closes in...
And in the meantime, Randy's mother is desperately looking for him, finally ready to tell him the mystery of his own father, absent since the time of his conception.
It's a fascinating premise, explored in delightful detail. The descriptions of the Greek gods as down-on-their-luck circus performers were immensely diverting (the mythological adroit reader realizes that this is the case very early on, and then it's a fun game of "spot the god"), and I'm happy to recommend the book simply on the strength of this aspect of it. I especially enjoyed meeting Dionysus in the form of seedy lounge singer "Johnny Vine."
I was left, however, not quite convinced about Randy's role in all the goings on of the gods. It's clear that he's going to somehow save them, but here in Book 1, his special-ness plays out in a somewhat fuzzy way. In particular, I was bothered by the interventions of Dionysus that take place in Randy's dream life- Dionysus seems to have a power left to him that isn't in keeping with the premise of the book, and the central episode of Randy's own journey to "power" in a mysterious dream sequence didn't make all that much sense to me (and the juggling part of things wasn't quite successfully integrated into the story either. Unless I missed something). To be fair, these things don't make much sense to Randy either, and maybe more will be made clear in the subsequent books--this is the first of a trilogy, after all. But still, I myself found it a book to enjoy much more for the playing out of the great premise than for the particulars of Randy's story.
Recommended in particular to fans of Greek mythology, fans of fictional third-rate circuses, and those seeking books that are set, at least in part, in western Kansas. Randy, in this book at least, doesn't match Percy Jackson's wham bam god-like powers, and there are no monsters to kill, so it's not an automatic read-a-like to that series, although this might change in the subsequent books.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)