Title // Harley In The Sky
Author // Akemi Dawn Bowman
Publisher // Simon Pulse
Publication Date // March 10, 2020
Synopsis // 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.
My Rating: ★★★★★
Many thanks to the publisher, Simon & Schuster, for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
**all quotes are taken from the ARC and might differ slightly in the finished copy**
This. Book. This book. Was. Everything.
I had impossibly high expectations going into this book. I love Akemi Dawn Bowman’s other two books, especially Starfish, and I absolutely love the idea of the circus (The Greatest Showman is one of my favorite movies!!) so the moment I heard of this book, I knew that I had to read it. Most of the time when I have sky-high expectations I end up disappointed because there’s no physical way for a book to be so impossibly perfect but this book… this book was even better than I hoped and dreamed it would be.
The character of Harley Milano, and her dream of joining the circus and being a trapeze artist was so incredible and wonderful and fun to read about. Her passion and excitement for trapeze, the thing she loves so much, shines through the page so much, and it was like I could feel her joy with every sentence I read about the circus. The descriptions were so beautiful and evocative that I felt like I was there, I was flying through the air with her. Bowman really captured the feeling of falling in love with something so fully.
“I love the way it makes me feel as if the world is in reverse and upside down all at once–like there’s starlight beneath my feet and the ocean above my head, and every impossible dream can come true in a single whisper.”
Furthermore, the whole setting of the circus feels so absolutely magical and whimsical and I was just captivated the whole time I was reading it. It’s a contemporary, but it almost felt a bit like a fantasy, a bit dreamlike, with the circus that’s so enchanting it feels unreal. Trapeze artists doing rolls and flips high in the sky, a tightrope walker balanced high above the world, a girl throwing knives with her eyes closed and shooting arrows with her feet–it’s so enchanting and incredible, and the descriptions were so perfect that I could get swept up in the magic with each page.
As much as I love the idea of the circus, the main reason I was so desperate for this book is Akemi Dawn Bowman’s multiracial rep… it’s like nothing else. Harley is multiracial, the daughter of two biracial parents. She’s mixed Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and more (I think just general white not positive). As you might imagine, this leads her to have mixed feelings, almost a crisis, about her identity, as she feels like she fits into so many boxes, yet none at all.
She’s part Asian, so I’ll say that the Asian rep is wonderful! There’s talk of hong baos, Chinese folktales, and other Asian moments that were lovely to read about.
But I have to say, as a biracial half Asian person myself, as happy as I am that fellow Asians can feel represented in multiracial characters, I sometimes feel… almost a bit annoyed when reviewers gush about the Asian rep and ignore the white (or whatever race) part that’s equally a part of her. So after reading a few quotes in this book, I had to stop, reread the page a few times to make sure I read it right, and then just reflect on the fact that it’s so darn true and I’ve never seen that in a book before.
“Asian people call me ‘too white’ and laugh at me for not knowing enough about Chinese and Japanese culture. And white people only ever see me as Asian, as exotic–different from their version of ‘all American.’ When someone is biracial, it’s suddenly like, ‘no, you don’t get to claim all the things that you are because you’re not Asian enough.”
And another one
“I hate Halloween. People get understandably upset about people dressing up like they belong in another culture, but honestly? I’ve felt like that my whole life. Like I’m wearing a costume from someone else’s background. Like I have no real claim to all the different pieces of my family’s heritage.”
Anyways, I was hoping for a few snippets of being multiracial thrown in there to make me happy, and as you can see, they were certainly there! But then! This book goes above and beyond and celebrates being multiracial. It’s like a love letter to any multiracial person who has ever felt like they don’t belong. It celebrates the push and pull of different identities and cultures, and weaves that into a circus routine, shows how amazing and beautiful it can be, and I was just… sobbing.
I’m always on the lookout for not good biracial rep, but any biracial rep. Because there’s just so little of it out there. So I’ve eagerly read a few books about half Asian characters by full Asian authors and… while they’re good, and I really appreciate them, they don’t fully get it. They often have good Asian rep, and good ideas, but they don’t full capture how it feels to be in between, to be everything yet nothing all at once.
I have never felt so heard, so loved, in a book before. Ever.
Anyways, you can probably tell that I love the multiracial rep. But–there’s more! This book also has such incredible mental health rep, and I also related immensely to it,
so at this point Harley is literally me okay.
There are various people obviously struggling with different parts of their mental health, with descriptions of a a character huge black cloud making everything seem terrible, a character having erratic mood swings from exhilarated and happy in one moment to absolutely despairing in the next, a character finding it really hard to talk to strangers and make small talk, and even a character feeling like she wants to die.
Yet there are purposefully no labels used for any of them, and I really liked that choice. Some reviews I see people saying “oh that’s bad anxiety rep” or “that’s not what depression is really like” or whatever, but in this book, none of the conditions are diagnosed, and I feel like that shows that everything isn’t black and white, and it’s on a scale, and what’s normal for one person might be totally different for someone else, and that’s okay. They’re working through their problems in their own way, and that’s okay. You don’t need an official diagnosis for anxiety to struggle with and overthink something as simple as making small talk, and know that your normal, and the victories you make over your personal mental health, is enough for you.
All of the relationships developed were amazing as well! Family, friends, and romance!
Harley desperately wants to join the circus, yet her parents want her to go to college, and this is what starts the whole plot of her running away with the circus. It’s really moving, particularly to anyone who has ever wanted something different from what their parents want for them.
Furthermore, Harley has to betray her parents in order to join the rival circus, and she spends part of the book struggling with that decision, struggling with doing what she knew was wrong, yet knowing that it lead to the right thing for her. The book really deals with the repercussions of these choices concerning her parents and her betrayal, and even her relationship with her grandmother and how that affected generations of family relationships and it’s all very moving.
I loved seeing Harley’s new friends in the circus, seeing how she would struggle to fit in and belong. She’s initially not accepted, and as someone who also struggles to make new friends, it was really relatable. She also deals with drifting away from her old childhood friend, and how their differences affect them, and the struggles with trying to preserve an old friendship when both sides don’t put in the same effort and their lives are changing.
Finally, I absolutely adored the romance! It was a kind of slow burn for most of the book, and there was so much tension and chemistry building up between them because hello? They’re rehearsing together in the literal circus how magical is that? It was super swoony and made me smile so much, but it was also just the right amount to not overpower the rest of this book.
TL;DR: this book is AMAZING it has circus magic, multiracial and mental health rep, and amazing relationships so READ IT NOW!!!
Do you love the idea of the circus too? Are you obsessed with Akemi Dawn Bowman’s writing too? HAVE I CONVINCED YOU TO READ THIS MASTERPIECE YET? I’d love to chat in the comments below ❤