The Night Circus is Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel. Published simultaneously in the US and the UK in September 2011, this book is a standalone novel. Morgenstern has also been the very lucky recipient of something almost unheard of for a debut author in the fantasy genre: a major publicity effort, complete with interviews at major media sources. And let me tell you, she deserves every bit of the attention.
The circus is coming…
Celia is the daughter of Hector Bowen, a stage magician of the Victorian era. What his audience doesn’t know—and wouldn’t believe—is that what they think are masterful illusions are real magic. When his daughter is six, Hector summons an old friend, Alexander, and makes a wager that Celia, with her significant natural talent, will be a better magician than any student without natural talent that Alexander can teach. They bind Celia to a competition to take place in the nebulous future with Marco, the student Alexander takes to fulfill his side of the wager. There a few stipulations: neither can interfere with the other’s work (nor can they receive outside magical help), the competition will be in a public venue, they can’t quit and walk away, and only one can win.
As adults, Celia and Marco are inserted into the foundation of the Night Circus, which is designed to be a complete work of art and spectacle in true Wagnerian fashion. Within this space, and with the help of fellow builders and performers, Celia and Marco work their magic to create a venue to delight the masses that is like nothing else in the world. Perhaps inevitably, their competition moves into something more along the lines of collaboration, as the whole of the circus becomes more important than the individual parts both maintain.
While Celia and Marco are the protagonists, the book moves deftly between not only their viewpoints, but the viewpoints of a few other characters as well. Morgenstern includes this movement between viewpoints with movements through time—a potential pitfall, but she pulls it off in beautiful fashion. The book itself actually takes places over about thirteen years on at least two continents. While the forward and backward movement caught me off guard initially, the transitions were smooth and I didn’t find it distracting. I just had to pay attention to the dates given at the beginning of each chapter. Morgenstern uses this to flesh out the world she has created. We see the circus both as it is being built and at its peak. The descriptions of setting are fantastic in every sense of the word. You can see the circus come to life in all of its black and white glory. If you let yourself, you can smell the caramel corn and hot cocoa at the concession stands. The characters are well constructed and three dimensional. By the end of the book, we care about what’s happening to each and every one of them, especially since there isn’t a traditional villain role. We have sympathy for everyone, wanting things to turn out well even when there may not be room for a traditional happy ending.
…and the bad.
That’s not to say I loved everything about this book. It is, in essence, a love story. But the two lovers are rarely together, usually only for brief moments separated by years. While the dreamy feel of the book makes for lovely descriptions, for me it weakened the tension Morgenstern was trying to build as we reached the climax. The climax itself was rather short and unadorned. While it did wrap up neatly and cleanly, it didn’t leave me with the sense of accomplishment that I wanted.
Why should you read this book?
I will admit that when I first looked at this book, I was rather skeptical. One of the things I love about the fantasy genre is that it is built so strongly on evoking emotion. The cover of the book, the way it was being marketed, and even the cover text felt very literary to me, and I’ve been disappointed in the past by literary fiction’s attempt at blending with fantasy. I picked it up anyway, and I’m glad I did. This book is incredibly well-written with a very dream-like quality. While approachable by readers who don’t follow fantasy, it will also appeal to those who do. In some ways, this book reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s recent work, and some of Jane Yolen’s. The prose is exceptional, easily on par with some of the masters of modern writing, and this is Morgenstern’s debut! Trust me, we are going to hear more about this book throughout the next year, and I can’t wait to see more of this author.