Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Genre: Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Doubleday (Random House US)/ Harvill Secker (UK)
Publication date: September 2011
Hardcover: 387 pages
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: We both picked up signed copies at BEA
Why did we read this book: If the line at BEA is any indicator, The Night Circus is one of the most highly anticipated and hyped novels of 2011. With a movie deal already in the works (Summit – AGAIN), rights sold in a bananas number of countries, and a huge first print run, The Night Circus certainly has some big things going for it. But more than the hype, we both were taken in by the intriguing premise of the novel. A circus of dreams, dueling magicians, true love? How could we possibly resist?
Thea: There’s something enchanting about circuses and their ever-traveling, liminal nature – they can be magical and awe-inspiring, yet just a tad frightening and mysterious at the same time. It’s no small wonder, then, that circuses have been a favorite locale in both writing and film. But The Night Circus is more than just another iteration of a circus love story (Water for Elephants) or a supernatural horror-carnival (Cirque du Freak) imitator. No, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel resonates with the essence of wonder and spectacle that the symbolic circus inspires, and I found myself enchanted with le cirque du reves and the players and innocents caught up in its striped tents. The Night Circus is a beautifully written, genre-crossing novel, and I loved it.
Ana: There is a lot of hype surrounding The Night Circus: it was definitely the most talked about book at BEA and the line to get an autographed copy was the longest I’ve ever seen. Marketing materials promise a “love story for ages” and celebrate rights sold in 22 countries and a film deal with Summit Entertainment. It is not surprising that after having been burnt so badly by hyped books in the not so distant past I was extremely wary about reading The Night Circus….until I actually started reading it and this time around, wouldn’t you know, the hype is true. This is a wonderful book, gorgeously written, brilliantly executed and I loved every second of it, faults and all.
On the Plot:
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
On a crisp, cool night in 1876, the cirque du reves makes its debut appearance, magically setting up overnight, opening its gates from dusk until dawn. Over the next twenty-six years, the circus moves from town to town, from London to Munich, Sydney to New York, and all manner of impossible, far reaching locale in between. With each move, the circus enchants and delights throngs of spectators who fall under its fabulous, dreamlike spell. Perhaps they even understand, or suspect, that there is more to this particular circus than clever tricks and performers – for, in fact, le cirque du reves is a place where magic and reality intertwine. It is the stage for a great game between two different, ancient magicians and their apprentices. On the one side, there is the beautiful illusionist, Celia, who can manipulate cloth with a mere thought and transform books into doves with a flick of her graceful hands. On the other, there is Marco, the quiet, unobtrusive circus proprietor’s assistant, who writes dreams into reality and uses his learnings to create impossible new worlds contained within black and white tents. As Marco and Celia discover each other and realize their unwilling rivalry in a game with the most dire consequences, they also unavoidably, inexplicably fall in love. But the game does not recognize love, nor does it care for its two reluctant participants: as the years pass and the strain grows impossible to bear, someone must be declared the victor, the other the loser, and the fate of the circus and all those who love it are placed in the balance.
The Night Circus is, without doubt, a beautiful book. It has all the elements one could ask for in a novel – lush prose, beautiful imagery, a resonant love story, endearing characters, and both magic and danger in spades. I love the concept of the book, with two dueling illusionists – magicians, really – playing the ultimate game with an enchanted circus as their battleground. Beginning with both Celia and Marco as children, The Night Circus shows in detail each of their respective teachers/father figures and the different methods of training they have undergone. It is very clear from the start of the book that though Celia and Marco are the two to be players in the game, they are pawns of a much larger battle, with their masters on opposite sides.
More than anything else, The Night Circus is a very visual book. As Ana and I have joked in emails, it’s kind of like what you would get if The Prestige and Carnivale had a lovechild (although I’m sure Ana will also mention Moulin Rouge). The circus itself is so integral to this novel and is a character in itself, painstakingly described with its many tents and acts vividly drawn in shades of black and white and red. I loved the different acts, from Tsukiko’s contortions to the lighting of the white-burning bonfire, the smells of melted caramel and fresh popcorn, all under a starry sky.
My only complaints with regards to the story and writing are that the novel begins rather slowly, and that the game itself – i.e. the entire impetus for the plot – never really feels like a pressing, urgent thing. For the entire book, the “game” (often referred to but never truly understood or addressed) remains sort of undefined and dreamlike. That’s not a bad thing, but I can’t help but feel like there should have been something more to it. As it is, The Night Circus is less of a book with a clear storyline and more a series of vignettes and impressions – which is fantastic and masterfully created, but I can’t help but want just that little extra oomf.
Ana: Then there are the different narrators or points of view: from someone apparently addressing the reader, YOU, as you would feel walking around the Circus; to the main characters Marco, Celia and Bailey in different timelines (and that is so important) and finally, there are also articles (newspapers cuttings?) talking about the circus and how it affects the lives of its attendees. But that is narrative only – there is also the manner in which the circus and its attractions are described in such a way that is easy to feel as though you are there – feeling, touching, smelling. If anything this author, is a master of atmosphere and this book is extremely visual. And for someone who has usually a hard time visualizing anything, this is the highest form of compliment I can give.
And then there is the plot. The central theme might seem to be the game and how it is played by these two magicians each belonging to a school of thought: one believing in natural talent, the other believing in learning and study. Each picking a student – Marco and Celia – to embody their believes and play against each other, to try and prove each other wrong. The game itself might be the propeller of this story, its rules fuzzy and never truly explained in depth but it doesn’t matter. The rules don’t matter; the players don’t matter; what matters is the stage where the game is played. Because this is not the first time these two magicians play this game – and it will probably not be the last time either. What matters is that this time around they picked a different, new stage, with more people to take into consideration and they took their time creating it: The Night Circus was born to be the stage where Celia and Marco face each other on behalf of these two magicians. And it is the stage that will make all the difference in the world.
Yes, Thea is right when she says things move far too slowly and there is the lack of a certain oomf when it came to certain aspects of the novel but they did not bother me as much. I felt the slow start suited the story (or perhaps it suited me as a reader) and the lack of oomf….well, I will get back to that in the characters’ part.
On the Characters:
Thea: Here’s where I felt The Night Circus could have used a tad more development, for while the characters are lovely and endearing, like the plot, they remain somewhat undefined and superficial. Our dual protagonists, Celia and Marco, have been chosen from a young age and have been groomed for this magical match of wills. As the book begins we see some very sad things happen to young Celia as her father forces her to harden and hone her skills, just as we see Marco trained in a more gentle but attention-starved manner from his own master. By the time the circus is ready to launch, both are skilled magicians and adults that have mastered their own schools of technique. Then, the two fall in love at first recognition, and that, as they say, is that. And this is my only real problem with The Night Circus:
There’s a wonderful atmosphere to to this book, and its visual storytelling and impressionistic writing are unparalleled. However, there’s a lack of emotion which seems strangely out of place in a novel of such beauty and scope. I wanted to truly know Marco and Celia. I wanted to know how they feel about being thrown into a larger battle against their wills. I wanted to see Celia rail against the ghost of her single-minded, cruel father. But instead all the reactions and emotions that should drive these characters are muted and insubstantial. Had there been more of a connection, more passion to any of these characters this novel could have been even better than it already is.
On a brighter note, I did love the cast of secondary characters, who are all varied and unique (if, again, only on a superficial level). The contortionist Tsukiko with her mysterious smile and long past is a favorite, as is fortune teller/lover gone awry Isobel. There’s a master clockmaker that starts his own subculture of Circus followers (“reveres”), a pair of sisters that look nearly identical, an elderly former prima ballerina, and a muddled proprietor – all of whom play integral roles in the creation of the circus. There are a pair of twins with brilliant red hair and their own special abilities, and a young boy named Bailey, who will mean more to the circus than anyone could ever suspect. I loved them all – I only wish I could have known them marginally better.
Ana: I completely agree with Thea and her assessment of Celia and Marco and their lack of…emotional connect to what was happening to them for their entire lives. Their falling in love was far too easy and there was definitely something MORE missing there and I loved all the secondary characters much more than I cared for the main characters. And whilst this is usually a deal-breaker for me, I found myself not really caring about this lack of oomf between the two. But hear me out, for I have a Theory:
Every single character in this novel EXCEPT the main characters should matter MORE. To me, Celia and Marco are mysterious and depth-less on purpose. Because it is the other characters’ vibrancy and depth that tip the scales of the game and eventually determine its outcome! Never before in the history of this feud there were so many people being part of this game – it is their destiny and that of the Circus itself that are so important and therefore why they are better developed.
Of course…this could easily be constructed as me, trying to excuse a serious flaw in the book. You decide.
Having said that, I still rooted for Celia and Marco and I loved several moments between them (most especially their first kiss. I am a romantic, what can I say?). And I appreciated how the fact that they so easily fell in love in with each other was left open for interpretation: was it really love? Because it is hinted at one point that during these games it is almost inevitable for opponents to fall in love with each other: because of what they share, this unique experience and because of what they – and they alone – can create. There is a certain beauty as well as a certain horror in that.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: Though I wanted more conviction and fire, The Night Circus is a beautiful novel and easily a notable read of the year. Absolutely recommended.
Ana: As soon as I finished reading this book I thought: The Night Circus is totally the love child of The X-Files, The Prestige and Moulin Rouge. If you love these things as much as I do, you should not skip this one. A notable read and a serious contender for a top 10 of 2011 spot.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
New York, February 1873
The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.
The lawyer who escorts her to the theater refuses to explain despite the manager’s protestations, abandoning her as quickly as he can with no more than a shrug and the tip of a hat.
The theater manager does not need to read the envelope to know who the girl is for. The bright eyes peering out from under a cloud of unruly brown curls are smaller, wider versions of the magician’s own.
He takes her by the hand, her small fingers hanging limp within his. She refuses to remove her coat despite the warmth of the theater, giving only an adamant shake of her head when he asks her why.
The manager takes the girl to his office, not knowing what else to do with her. She sits quietly on an uncomfortable chair beneath a line of framed posters advertising past productions, surrounded by boxes of tickets and receipts. The manager brings her a cup of tea with an extra lump of sugar, but it remains on the desk, untouched, and grows cold.
The girl does not move, does not fidget in her seat. She stays perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap. Her gaze is fixed downward, focused on her boots that do not quite touch the floor. There is a small scuff on one toe, but the laces are knotted in perfect bows.
The sealed envelope hangs from the second topmost button of her coat, until Prospero arrives.
She hears him before the door opens, his footsteps heavy and echoing in the hall, unlike the measured pace of the manager who has come and gone several times, quiet as a cat.
“There is also a . . . package for you, sir,” the manager says as he opens the door, ushering the magician into the cramped office before slipping off to attend to other theater matters, having no desire to witness what might become of this encounter.
The magician scans the office, a stack of letters in one hand, a black velvet cape lined with shockingly white silk cascading behind him, expecting a paper-wrapped box or crate. Only when the girl looks up at him with his own eyes does he realize what the theater manager was referring to.
Prospero the Enchanter’s immediate reaction upon meeting his daughter is a simple declaration of: “Well, fuck.”
You can read a full excerpt online using the widget below:
The Night Circus Excerpt
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Reading next: The Shattering by Karen Healey
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