[ Book Review ] Dreams, Magic, and the Night Circus

Jessica’s Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I was really excited to get my hands on The Night Circus, the new fantasy novel that started as a subplot in Erin Morgenstern’s NaNoWriMo novel. The month-long challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days is dear to my heart, and I was thrilled at the chance to read a successfully published book that started in that community.

The plot also gave me high hopes for the book: two young magicians are locked in a mysterious bond that’s part game, part fight to the death, set in a dreamlike circus. When they fall in love, they must find a way to free themselves from the game, which holds not only their lives, but those of everyone in the circus, in a complex web.

I went in primed with thoughts of the Hunger Games trilogy, spiced with my favorite book, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which also features a mysterious circus that arrives at night.

While The Night Circus doesn’t climb quite so high as Bradbury’s masterpiece, Morgenstern’s circus is undeniably quite the spectacle. Morgenstern clearly takes great joy in world-building, and the Cirque des Reves (Circus of Dreams) features all manner of fanciful performances and sensory delights. In bridge passages, a second-person narrative invites the reader to wander through the maze of tents and take in a taste of what the circus has to offer. A contortionist, an Ice Garden, a Wishing Tree aflame with hundreds of candles, precocious acrobatic kittens, dazzling performers, and even experts in lighting and fragrance to give the circus the perfect ambiance make appearances.

It feels weird to say this, but after a certain point there’s too much beauty in Night Circus. Morgenstern indulges in pages of description. The costumes are inevitably elegant, the food is uniformly exquisite, the marvels in each tent are flawless, we are reminded several times of the air’s trademark scent of wood smoke and caramel.

It sounds wonderful, and dreamlike, which is the intent, but after a certain point I am jaded enough to have my doubts. Do the trained kittens never decide they’d rather pounce on a stray feather than perform? Do the statue performers really hold so still you can’t ever see them blink or breathe? Is there even a fallen piece of popcorn ground into the grass somewhere?

Another area Morgenstern still needs to improve is her pacing. After a while, the descriptions of the circus start interfering with the progression of the plot. On the jacket flap, I am promised a love between the magicians, Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair, that is “passionate and magical,” something that literally warms the room when they brush hands. Almost halfway through the book, the fateful hand brush has yet to occur. Celia and Marco have their first real meeting (aside from both attending the same party, say) on page 202 of a 387-page novel.

That’s a long time to wait. It also makes it difficult to establish a passionate relationship quickly, and I caught Morgenstern doing bit of literary backpedaling (sentences along the lines of “Suddenly all the small glances Celia had dismissed came back to her, with new meaning…”) to rev the intimacy up to speed.

Still, The Night Circus catches up with its potential in the latter half of the book. Morgenstern has a lovely sense of humor, particularly when it comes to Celia’s relationship with her father, a magician who goes by the stage name of Prospero. An error in a spell leaves him disembodied, and Morgenstern riffs on the various Shakespearean elements this introduces, but keeps it self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, not forced. The relationship between the magicians gains ground quickly once it’s initiated, but there is even more of a treat in the budding romance between Bailey, a young dreamer who trespasses into the Cirque des Reves on a dare, and Poppet, a twin born and raised as a perfomer.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the themes of Shakespeare and dreams play a certain part in the lovers’ decision about their role in a game they did not get to choose, and that it’s handled well. Morgenstern doesn’t tie every thread she dangles over the course of the book, but I’m not one to bicker over a few remaining mysteries, given the nature of the world she’s created. The Night Circus may not be the next fantasy classic, but it’s an entertaining and vividly presented yarn, perfect for a snowed-in weekend.

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