Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Posted May 31, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 4 Comments

Harley in the Sky

Harley in the Sky

by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Publisher: Simon Pulse on March 10, 2020
Genre: Bildungsroman, Carnivals, Contemporary, Mental Health
Target Age Group: Young Adult
Rating: ★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

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.


When I picked up Harley in the Sky, I definitely thought I was going to be getting a different kind of book.  I must have missed all the chatter and conversation about it by the Street Team, which makes sense because I haven’t exactly been the most active on Twitter.  I picked up this book so quickly because I love books about the circus.

But this isn’t a book about the circus.  Not really.

In my opinion, this book is about living with untreated mental illness, and rising above it.  And that is fine and good. Really.  We’re not given Harley’s diagnosis, but it feels like something akin to manic depression.  Nearly every chapter is a conversation about what it’s like to be Harley, trying to untangle her emotions and rise to her dreams.  Some chapters are about her heritage and her family.  A few chapters are about Vas and their blossoming relationship.  What’s left… those chapters are about the circus.

It took me by surprise.  I wish I had seen this book raised up more as a book discussing manic depression, or as a diverse book (Harley is part-Asian and spends some time discussing this in a few different places).  Because everything I read was about Harley’s dream about being an aerialist, I went in ready for carnival magic akin to The Night Circus or Caraval.  Because I was going into this one looking for a circus book as opposed to a rep-heavy contemporary, I think my takeaways were a bit muted.

Again, nothing wrong with a rep-heavy contemporary.  They’re amazing!  I just go into those with a different mindset.  And I found myself getting impatient with chapter after chapter where Harley explains her life to others in convenient dialogue exchanges.  These sections felt like huge info dumps and I was never able to immerse myself fully into Maison du Mystère.  The atmosphere faltered under the weight of the conversation.

Then, there was Harley.  I had a difficult time liking Harley, because she is so incredibly selfish.  And I sort of feel like a terrible person for saying that, because the way her mental illness is discussed, it felt like that was used as a way to explain away her behavior.  I empathize with Chloe, who tried to make Harley understand the consequences of her actions… and just gave up.  Other characters are a little more likable – I liked Vas as first, but… I dunno.  After a while I felt like we only skimmed the surface but that was all there was to him, a shell.  Other performers at Maison had possibility as well – like Maggie! – but the story was so absorbed in Harley, everyone else disappeared behind her inflated sense of self-importance.  We couldn’t spend too much time with the minor characters, because we had to spend all our time with Harley.  And I didn’t like Harley?  So that was a downer.

It worked for Harley’s personality, it really did.  I just didn’t love it.

I can’t say this is a “bad book” – because it’s not!  I think it accomplished what it set out to do – to provide a narrative for those who don’t have the support they need to find themselves in an oppressive world, and for those who struggle with mental illness but are not provided tools so they must build their own.  For that message, Harley in the Sky was a success.  But it wasn’t the circus book I was looking for, and I didn’t enjoy reading it.

And that’s okay!  Not all books are for me.  This one wasn’t.  But it may be the perfect fit for someone else.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★
Plot: ★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Writing: ★★★
Pacing: ★★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★


Harley in the Sky Will be Donated

Despite it’s absolutely beautiful cover (seriously, I love this cover art.  There are so many nuances to the design, and I love the use of gold foil), Harley in the Sky wasn’t a particularly enjoyable book for me, so I don’t think this one is one I want to keep.  It’s not that it has turned me off Akemi Dawn Bowman (I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about Starfish), but Harley wasn’t the book I was looking for and hoping for.  Harley’s character frustrated me constantly and while I got the ending I wanted, the whole thing felt forced.

So yeah.  Not my most enjoyable reading experience.  This book reeks of “not for me” vs. “not a good book”, so I hope it will bring someone else a lot of joy!


Have you ever picked up a book thinking it was about one thing, but it ended up being about something else entirely?  I do this every so often and sometimes it can actually be a nice surprise.  I’d love to hear about the books that came unexpectedly to you in the comments!

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4 responses to “Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman

  1. Hm, I /have/ been on Twitter a lot, lol, and this is the first I’ve heard of this book. I saw a lot of this author’s other books when they were first released, so maybe this one got lost in everything going on with COVID-19.

    A book I read recently (The Binding by Bridget Collins) turned out to be quite different from what I expected. It was a lot more romance than fantasy, so I felt the same way about it as you feel about this book.

    Jenna @ Falling Letters recently posted: May 2020 Month In Review
    • Amber

      Starfish *definitely* blew up on social media! I saw a little less of Summer Bird Blue, then almost nothing about Harley in the Sky. Every few months, I comb through Goodreads lists of New YA Releases, and I think that is actually where I found this one! You’re right, very little exposure? Akemi Dawn Bowman thanks her street team in the acknowledgements, maybe they were just on blog tours? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      Oooo, unexpected romance overhaul is a *rough* kind of unexpected. At least, it is for me, and it’s also a really, really common one. Great example!

      • Yes! I don’t really want to read romance… please tell me about it ahead of time so I can avoid it lol. With The Binding, I didn’t expect any romance until I saw it on a list of someone’s favourite queer books so I thought “Oh, queer rep, that’s a nice bonus” but then it turned out to be entirely about that romance, lol.

        • Amber

          Same! I’ve really had to adjust my thinking for a lot of books and just *assume* they are all also romances, on some level. I’m always thrilled when the romance stays in the subplot zone. And I’m absolutely delighted when it’s not there, which sounds a bit harsh, but why does every book need a love story?