Those who are familiar with Bradley's Darkover works know that she has tackled the theme of homosexuality before, but those works are set in a future, almost alien environment. This book's setting is one that almost everyone has had at least some contact with, that of the circus and the high-flying trapeze act.
The period is the forties and fifties, a time when such relationships were never, ever talked about, criminalized in most states, and ruined many careers and lives if they became public knowledge. To this setting Bradley brings a remarkably apt pen, one that shows the circus in such detail that you can literally hear the elephants trumpet, the lions roar, the drum roll before the death-defying flight of the trapeze artist. The book follows the happening of the Flying Santellis, a family that has given their all to the perfection of the trapeze act since the 1890s. The Santellis are a close-knit family, held together by tradition, discipline, and a set of old-world values. To this family comes young Tommy Zane, entranced by the dream of becoming a flyer, and so familiar with world of the circus as the son of a lion tamer that the lives of non-circus people seem almost unreal to him. He is brought under the wing of Mario Santelli for training, and there is a quickly developing attraction between the two, an attraction that is far more than just physical, an attuning of each to the other that leads to their perfect sense of timing with each other on the trapeze.
It is this point that Bradley develops so well in this novel, the impossibility of separating a person's sexuality from the rest of their lives, that love is far more than just sex. Add to that the environment of that time, when such love could not be freely expressed, and you have the recipe for serious emotional repression and destructive anger. Bradley's characters' feelings and thoughts bristle with such charge that it is impossible not to become caught up in their plight, not to have your own anger raised at the stupidity and prejudice displayed by Angelo, Mario's uncle, and others. The rest of the Santelli family have their own problems, too, somewhat more conventional, but just as heart-breaking, just as real as the family next door. The book's ending is a true emotional uplift, growing out of and very true to Bradley's characters' development into mature individuals.
Bradley's sexual descriptions are only very mildly graphic, but there is some violence depicted here that might disturb some readers. But that is part of the point: it should disturb, that a society's rules, when at odds with basic human nature, can lead to such outbreaks of violence, detrimental to both the involved individuals and the society at large.
An impeccably detailed setting, sharply realized characters that live and breathe, an explosive situation, and a thematic message that is handled with grace and much insight - this is a novel that demands reading, regardless of your own sexual preferences.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)