Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman – REVIEW
Harley Milano has dreamed of being a trapeze artist for as long as she can remember. With parents who run a famous circus in Las Vegas, she spends almost every night in the big top watching their lead aerialist perform, wishing with all her soul that she could be up there herself one day.
After a huge fight with her parents, who continue to insist she go to school instead, Harley leaves home, betrays her family and joins the rival traveling circus Maison du Mystère. There, she is thrust into a world that is both brutal and beautiful, where she learns the value of hard work, passion and collaboration. But at the same time, Harley must come to terms with the truth of her family and her past—and reckon with the sacrifices she made and the people she hurt in order to follow her dreams.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author.
Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
“I don’t want to follow anybody’s path. I want to make my own – through the woods and beyond the mountains and into the stars.”
I’m a huge fan of Akemi Dawn Bowman and rated both Starfish and Summer Bird Blue an easy five stars, so I was thrilled to receive an early copy of the author’s latest work, Harley in the Sky. Set in a travelling circus called Maison du Mystère, the story focuses on eighteen-year-old, would-be aerialist Harley who longs to take her place in the circus spotlight. Like Starfish and Summer Bird Blue, identity is an important theme and Harley struggles with the history and culture of her mixed-race heritage. The author sensitively explores how identity is often policed and value-judgements made based on appearance. Most importantly, she urges the reader to find a way to belong that also makes them happy.
“Because this place – the circus – is home to people who’ve never quite fit in anywhere else. It’s home to people who feel different.”
Harley is a complex and messy character and one who is instantly relatable. The complicated nature of family relationships, and the constant clashes between Harley and her parents, catalyse the plot. Feeling desperate, isolated and hurt, Harley lashes out in her anger, and I loved how her bond with her parents slowly healed throughout the story; both sides make accommodations and learn to compromise. The author has done so much to raise awareness of mental illness and this book is no different. Harley is never labelled with a particular mental illness but her behaviour is symptomatic of Bipolar disorder and it was fantastic to read a conversation challenging the idea that a diagnosis and medication is often seen as the only way to legitimise a mental illness.
“Perfect is overrated – it’s our flaws that make us human. I don’t want to be perfect. I want to be vulnerable and messy and free and wild.”
Dexi and Vivien were wonderfully warm additions to the cast with their kindness and support of Harley and together they celebrated the power of female friendship. For me, Maggie was probably the most interesting side character as her arc explored how ambition is often deemed unattractive in women and how women sometimes have to sacrifice one area of their life to succeed in another. Rounding out the cast of characters was Vas, whose dry humour, talent, and social anxiety created a complex love interest for Harley and I was rooting for them to make it work. I’d love another story set in the future so the reader can see how all these characters are getting on. The beautiful prose, richly detailed characters, and exploration of issues such as identity and belonging, combine to ensure another fantastic novel from Akemi Dawn Bowman. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.