The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Copyright 2011. Fiction. ISBN 9780307744432.
Le Cirque des Rêves is not like other circuses. It opens only when night falls and closes at dawn, disappears without a trace and reappears elsewhere without warning. Its dozens of tents contain mysteries like you’ve never imagined, sights you’ve only seen in your dreams.
Be happily oblivious of its true intent as you traverse its exhibitions: at its heart, the circus is the playing field of a competition designed to test the bounds of reality, bounds of imagination, and bounds of stamina of a pair of reluctant magicians.
Style and Plot:
Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen have been trained in magical arts since they were very young. Their teachers are a pair of sociopathic men who have orchestrated several similar competitions over the centuries, for apparently no other reason except that they disagree on the minor nuances of how magic should be taught. That is the basis for dozens of competitions that inevitably end in the death of one participant. Overkill.
The book does have an interesting twist on what it considers a rivalry, however. Instead of a fierce, combat-based competition, Celia and Marco use the circus as essentially a blank canvas, each creating new tents around new themes that are held together by their respective magics. These include a growing garden made of ice, a vertical maze of clouds, and a tree drooping under the weight of a thousand lit candles that never go out. This evens leads to some collaboration on their part, and the tents they create are fanciful and imaginative, made better by author Erin Morgenstern’s excellent descriptive ability.
Morgenstern makes an interesting stylistic choice by writing The Night Circus in the third person, present tense, which ideally would keep the reader in the present flow of the story as an observer of the action—much like one would observe a circus in real life. However, for the reader to be an observer of the action, there actually has to be action to keep it from feeling like a litany of descriptive mundane events. Morgenstern’s strengths are in description and foreshadowing: she spins details like sugar and creates what would be a vibrant atmosphere if it didn’t take up a good-sized portion of the book and was done better justice through a different choice of tense. Matters aren’t helped any by Morgenstern’s clunky grasp of dialogue, which leads to several stilted conversations and one-liners that fall rather flat. Instead of a wild and breathless story about star-crossed magicians trying to outdo one another, the book takes up what is too often a slow and sometimes plodding pace.
The Night Circus is home to the wide variety of characters one might find at a circus: Contortionists, fortunetellers, acrobats, beast masters, and illusionists, as well as those on the fringes of the circus but still caught up in its mysteries. Most of them have important parts to play, and play them well, especially in the cases of the secondary characters. We have Tsukiko, an enigmatic contortionist; Tante Padva, an ex-ballerina with a detailed eye for fashion; Chandresh Cristophe Lefèvre, the circus’s proprietor and visionary; and the sociopathic Mr. A. H—. and Hector Bowen, among several others. They add color to a circus that’s painted in black, white, and shades of gray.
Our main characters are Marco Alisdair and Celia Bowen, the competing magicians who are hopelessly in love with each other. Their romance can be hard to believe on some points, however, because it seems to happen very fast and without much more reasoning behind it except that it’s what the author wants. This is because of two major things: The first is that it’s easy to miss how many years have gone past as the book goes on (usually, the only thing that tells you how much time has gone by is a small date under the chapter names, without any other indication); and the second is that Celia was unaware of who Marco was for the first half of the book, making it a very one-sided relationship for a while. When she finds out who he is, she almost immediately falls right into a romance with him, an odd move for an otherwise careful woman. The romantic plotline becomes more believable when you realize that they’ve been competing for fifteen or twenty years, but may still raise a few eyebrows.
There are a few inconsistencies in the characters. Marco, for example, was taken from an orphanage and taught by a man who kept him alone for most of his young life, his only company being arcane books and a daily hour-long lecture. This doesn’t appear to have any effect on how Marco behaves around other people later in the novel, beyond a slight discomfort in crowds. Marco did seem to pick up a few of his teacher’s psychopathic tendencies, as he commits some terrible actions over the course of the story (these actions are excused, or at least happen without much further acknowledgment, likely because Marco is one half of the main romance and the reader must remain sympathetic to him). On the other hand, Celia acts more as a product of her training: Her father was her brutal and demanding teacher, causing Celia to grow up as a bit of a recluse, but with an immense amount of magical stamina.
One disappointing character choice is apparent in Isobel, the fortuneteller. She meets Marco near the beginning of the book, and they have a very brief and meaningless romantic relationship. There is very little reason for her to be there: one supposedly important action that Isobel takes over the course of the book is only addressed in a few scattered paragraphs, and when it comes to fruition, the impact falls flat and seems of little consequence. In short, her character does and is nothing that another character couldn’t have done or been.
The Night Circus is full of vibrant imagery and a good story, but could have used much more focus on the “why” of several aspects. 3 ½ out of 5 stars.