Published by Doubleday
Review by W. R. Greer
The Night Circus arrives at each locale without any warning or announcements. It appears in a field one day with a sign stating that it opens at nightfall. The locals stream toward the circus, eager for its opening. Everything about the circus is cast in black and white, with a magnificent and complex clock counting the minutes until the circus opens. It will close at dawn and may disappear by morning as quietly as it arrived. The circus doesn't have clowns or elephants, but its tents hold acts such as contortionists, illusionists, trapeze artists, trained cats, and a fortune teller. Other tents have labyrinths, ice gardens, and other wonders that are so imaginative and unimaginable at the same time that anyone seeing it might think it was magical.
And they would be right.
Set in the late 19th century, The Night Circus is the story of two people pitted against each other in a magical competition. The illusionist at the circus is Celia Bowen. The Night Circus begins when she's five years old. She's delivered to her father, Prospero the Enchanter, upon her mother's death. Initially annoyed by her very existence, he soon realizes she has inherited some of his supernatural powers. He instructs her to learn and perfect her magical abilities. Prospero seizes the opportunity to contact the mysterious Mr. A.H— and place their usual wager, one they've obviously placed many times before. Prospero offers Celia as his contestant, Mr. A.H— agrees to the bet before even choosing his.
Mr. A.H— returns to London and selects a nondescript boy, Marco, from an orphanage. His way involves the old magic, learnable by anyone with the proper education and attention to detail. Celia and Marco each grow up in isolation, forced to spend their time deepening their knowledge and mastering their skills. As they near adulthood, the night circus takes form, and becomes the venue for their contest. Marco knows who his adversary is; Celia doesn't.
Prospero and Mr. A.H— don't care for anything else but their contest. Prospero is cruel and condescending to Celia. Mr. A.H— is distant and emotionless with Marco. When Marco and Celia finally meet, sparks fly. Literally. As they are drawn to each other, they also come to understand the dire consequences of the contest.
The delight in Erin Morgenstern's novel is her unbridled imagination in the creation of the circus. Magic in novels is often used for coercion, obfuscation, healing, or as a weapon of war. Erin Morgenstern uses it to create beauty. The different magical tents are awe-inspiring wonders. Not only are the circus visitors amazed, but so are the readers of this fine novel. The pages for the first half of the book almost turn themselves as the enchantment of the circus casts its spell. I was wishing that such a circus was real and would come to my town. I would spend my last cent to attend just one night, visiting as many tents as possible and savoring its treats. Eventually, though, conflict is necessary to move the plot forward, and the sinister underpinnings of the circus begin to be revealed. The circus has involved many lives, and the contest threatens to unravel everything. Celia and Marco are drawn together, but destiny seems determined to keep them apart.
The only drawback to The Night Circus is the extent of this conflict. There is no evil per se in this novel. Prospero and Mr. A.H— are the mostly likely suspects to provide this, but they've used their own magic to bind Celia and Marco to this contest and are content just to see how it plays out. To them, Celia and Marco are just two pawns in a long game between the two older magicians. They're willing to let this play out over many years, robbing the novel of the suspense of a deadline where the contest must be decided. Celia and Marco know they must find their own solution, and their urgency eventually supplies the necessary suspense.
This is a minor quibble in an otherwise enchanting novel. This debut effort from Erin Morgenstern is well worth the time spent reading it. It might be trite to call The Night Circus magical, but that's the most apt adjective to describe it. Read it and find out for yourself.
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