REVIEW: Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene

Last Updated on October 7, 2022

Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair, book one of The Hollow Gods, exemplifies the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The subtle but lovely sky depictions do not adequately set the dark tone and nature of the novel. From the opening chapter, Levene teaches the reader to expect the unexpected.

Cover for Smiler's Fair by Rebecca LeveneAt its core, Smiler’s Fair is a book about a group of people. The coming of a royal son foretells a fatal threat to his powerful father and the rebirth of the moon god, Yron. Saved by his mother, the child narrowly escapes death with the notion he’ll one day return to claim what is his. An orphaned noblewoman enters into an arranged marriage, sending her down a path without a return. One man will learn the difficulties of mixing revenge, bravery, and alcohol, while another kills for sport and fun. A young boy will follow his heart at the cost of it, and a goatherder must reconcile a much bigger future than he ever imagined. All of their stories converge in the most unlikely of places: Smiler’s Fair. A carnival of pleasure will become a battleground for when the sun and moon fight, nothing is safe, especially things dwelling in the shadows.

The narrative of Smiler’s Fair utilizes multiple character perspectives with varying backgrounds, allowing the reader to experience a well-rounded view of the world. Levene’s prose oozes sensory details to create vivid imagery. This is true of both the most beautiful and the most disgusting of moments. Though the book uses familiar tropes, Levene subverts them in an unpredictable way while still keeping the payoff satisfying. The character choices layer into the overarching plot and make sense as the story develops. The fair itself also becomes a fully-fledged character, enhancing the reading experience.

Along with the unexpected direction of the story, the uniqueness of the world in Smiler’s Fair is a strength. Levene’s choices are creative and refreshing in a genre saturated by such similar creatures. Considering the book is around 400 pages, the lore is thoughtfully extensive, but neither is it overexplained nor overcomplicated. Some readers might find parts of the narrative rushed or not as well fleshed out, but Levene lays a solid foundation in this first book to build on in the succeeding novels. She’ll leave you wanting more.

From a grimdark perspective, Smiler’s Fair will check several reader boxes. Levene takes known character archetypes and applies a morally-grey twist as they make difficult decisions for survival. Levene’s action sequences are descriptively violent without holding back. Her world, very much like our own, is filled with majestic sites and horrifying elements. Thematically, Levene hones in on what it means to be human: “But nobody’s perfect, not truly. We all got our faults and our scars and the ways in which we’re different from each other” (23). I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Read Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene

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Angela Gualtieri

Angela Gualtieri is a former technical editor and project manager with a love of reading. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s traveling. You can find her at: https://www.instagram.com/agnovels/