Yes, I did just make an aerialist joke in the title of this post. That’s because today is my stop on the Harley in the Sky blog tour.
I’m excited to be sharing my review of this wonderful book that I simply couldn’t put it down.
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.
Thanks to Ink Road for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influences my opinion.
TWs: Mental health issues, emotional manipulation, bipolar disorder, depression, racism, suicidal thoughts.
You know when you can just tell you’re going to love a book? Well, I could feel it with Harley in the Sky before I even turned the first page. And I was right. This book is an ode to dreams, found families, and the magic of a circus.
I’ve been a huge fan of Akemi Dawn Bowman’s work since her debut novel Starfish and, once again, her book left me amazed.
Harley is a spectacular YA contemporary, full of heart, poignant moments, and positive messages about mental health. I rarely stay up late reading books (because work and adulthood) but I stayed up to 1am reading this because I could not, for a second, put it down.
Plot and pacing
Harley in the Sky follows Harley Milano, a teen living in Las Vegas, whose parents run the Teatro della Notte circus. Harley dreams of joining her parents’ circus and becoming an aerialist, but when her parents shatter her dreams, telling her she has to go to college, she leaves home to pursue her goals.
This story completely captivated me. From the first few chapters, when Harley does something to betray her parents’ trust, to her time at Maison du Mystere circus, and right through to the closing lines, this book had me enthralled.
A lot of that is down to the way Akemi builds the plot, scene by scene, with smaller events leading to cataclysmic ones. The smaller plot points and the bigger moments are all given the right amount of emphasis and, like the lens of a camera, we zoom in to see the details of the small scenes, and zoom out to see the scale and dramatic flare of the big finale.
The compelling nature of the story is also down to Akemi’s engaging writing style and the way she creates characters that you can’t help but invest your whole heart in.
One of the main reasons I liked Harley, our protagonist, is because she’s ambitious. She’s also funny, driven, and has impeccable taste in TV shows and pop culture (judging by her Stargate and Disney references), but it’s her ambition that drew me to her.
Ambition itself isn’t rare in female YA heroes. But ambition combined with morally grey motives and betrayal of your loved ones to get what you want (in a contemporary setting)? That’s a little less common, especially in protagonists.
And that’s what makes Harley so interesting. She has good intentions and cares a lot for others, but she also has a ruthless side. But she knows that putting ambition above family and being untrustworthy aren’t good qualities, but sometimes her goals override everything else.
Throughout the novel, she grapples with this side of herself, trying to become a better person and to be more self-reflective of her flaws, while still chasing her dreams. We see her trying to find the balance between being driven enough to go after her dreams, and not stepping on others’ toes for her own gains, alienating them in the process.
Maggie, Harley’s rival, is also ruthlessly ambitious, but unlike Harley, she doesn’t seem feel any guilt about stepping on people to get to where she wants to go. (She’d probably do it in heels with a grim smile, too.) Her lack of remorse make her seem steely, warrior-esque, but also cold and calculating.
Vas, a musician in the troupe, also seems cold and distant at first, but we soon learn that he gets social anxiety when talking to strangers, and withdraws because he doesn’t know what to say. He plays the violin, rides a motobike, and has a softer side that starts to come out around Harley. (Yes, friends, there is potential soft boy material here.)
Popo (Harley’s grandmother) is one of my favourite characters because she oscillates between sage wisdom and random, off-the-cuff jokes. She teaches Harley about her heritage and is the one Harley confides in when she feels like she can’t talk to her parents.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for witty-but-endearing grandmothers who give amazing advice, but would also throw a slipper at you if you said something rude. Popo doesn’t throw any slippers around, but I still love her kindness and generosity.
The novel is set primarily in the Maison du Mystere circus as it travels across the US, and the circus comes alive in the author’s words. She builds an illustrative picture of the big top, the Lunch Box, Harley’s trailer, and the stage where she trains.
There’s no fantasy magic in this circus, like in The Night Circus or Caraval. But there is real-world magic. And, in a way, that’s harder to capture, but Akemi does it beautifully.
This is a contemporary novel, not fantasy or magical realism, so there’s no magic system to carry the magic. Instead, it comes from people entering an electric atmosphere of the circus and suspending their disbelief. Akemi imbues each part of the circus grounds with an enchanting aura and gives each act glittering ambience. She creates magic from reality and does so with skill.
Akemi’s writing style is nothing short of sublime. Her narrative stands out from other YA novels because it strikes the perfect balance between descriptive elements, dialogue, and pacy, plot-driven scenes.
Her writing has an incandescent quality and earnest tone that energises all of her stories and brings her characters to life. She expresses Harley’s voice brilliantly, with moments of teenage naivety, moments of stubbornness, and moments of determination.
I’m starting to think that Akemi could write a shopping list, and I’d still devour it. Starfish and Summer Bird Blue are beautifully written, but there’s something truly special about Harley in the Sky.
Diversity and identity
There two themes in all of Akemi’s novels that make them so satisfying to read: an open-minded attitude towards mental health, and the inclusion of diverse characters.
Harley is the daughter of two biracial parents and between their Chinese, Japanese, Irish and Italian heritages, she struggles to find a sense of identity.
She describes how people have told her she’s ‘not Chinese enough’ but also ‘not American enough’, and although she’s part of many cultures, she doesn’t feel a sense of belonging.
Through Harley’s questions about who she is, Akemi Dawn Bowman challenges racial stereotypes and prejudices. She shows that Harley has a right to every part of her identity and that no-one should ever make her feel like she’s ‘not enough’.
Positive attitudes towards mental health
In Starfish, the author explores social anxiety, in Summer Bird Blue she discusses depression and bereavement, and in Harley she looks at bipolar disorder and general attitudes towards mental health.
Harley suffers from extreme highs and lows that seem characteristic of bipolar disorder. She describes feelings of depression and intense euphoria to Vas, explaining that she always seems to be chasing the high of intense happiness without ever fully reaching it.
Her mood swings make her impulsive and she unintentionally ignores friends and family when she gets caught up in extreme moods. Harley describes how her parents have never really tried to understand her mental health and haven’t encouraged her to talk to a therapist about it.
Akemi uses this to emphasize the importance of having a support network for people dealing with mental health issues. Vas and Harley talk about their differing MH experiences in a positive, non-judgemental manner, which seems to help both of them.
Their dialogue is an active reminder of how one conversation about mental health can change things. Opening up often lifts a burden from people struggling with MH issues and sometimes the best thing we can do for others is just listen. Akemi uses her writing to encourage readers to do more to dismantle the stigma surrounding different mental health issues and I can’t commend her enough for this.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this mammoth review, congratulations! You receive an imaginary gold star and my eternal gratitude.
The main takeaways from this review are how much I adored this book and how spellbinding Akemi Dawn Bowman’s writing is. Her world-building is detailed, her characters diverse and intriguing, and I can’t commend her enough for promoting mental health awareness.
Every time Akemi announces a new book I get excited because she’s one of the most compelling YA authors out there. Harley in the Sky soared to new heights, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog tour!