Saturday, December 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Two master illusionists/magicians have been trained from a young age to take part in a contest in which one must out-magic the other. The victor’s prize is survival. The contest will take part in a fantastical circus—one that travels from city to city on a train that defies reality, appears instantaneously, and is open to the public at nightfall, closing at dawn. The Circus of Dreams.

The contestants, Celia and Marco, build the circus, vying to show off their skill and imagination. Neither quite understands the rules of the game, not at first. Enamored of the wonders of the night circus, they collaborate with its initiators (a promoter, an engineer, a clock-maker, a costumer and a few others) and even with each other to create a magical place/event that seduces circus-goers around the world. And, not quite understanding the rules of the game, of course they fall in love.

The larger and more elaborate their game—their world—the more difficult it is to hold it together. Although they are the crucial players, innocent people are also entrapped. Celia and Marco are bound by their own masters to play it through to its conclusion no matter the consequences.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern has been receiving rave reviews that are well-earned. It is imaginative and lushly written. Her world-building is superb. It’s a gentle book, for all its threat of violence. (Two young people are forced into a contest in a created venue where they had to battle to the death for an ill-defined prize. But they defy their "superiors" by falling in love and redirecting their energies. I confess Hunger Games popped into my head as I was reading. But this is very unlike Hunger Games. It’s all very subtle and contained. They battle by creating fantasy tents in a circus of dreams and for a long time, they don’t even know they are engaged in a battle for survival.) There is a slow and dreamy quality to the book. Shifts in time added to the dreaminess—they were a bit disorienting until I gave myself over to the sliding back-and-forth. (Chapters start with a dateline so if you pay attention you shouldn’t get disoriented, but I’m not good at checking dates. I find it more distracting than I do being disoriented.) The circus itself is an addictive fantasy (what new tent would be created next?) and I was curious to see if Celia and Marco could escape their fate and if so, how.

Still, I think I had expectations for the book that were higher than could be realized. For me, it was all too surreal. I was never pulled into the world of The Night Circus because it was all too impossibly fictional. The tribulations of the characters didn’t touch me very deeply. But this could be, in part, due to the fact that I sat down and read the book on Friday night after a long work week.

So, gorgeous writing, imaginative, with a fantastical dreamlike setting. If you like fantasy and magic and love stories where superhuman soulmates must overcome obstacles like magical curses where they are doomed to have to fight one another to the death, destroying everything they love in the process – this book is spellbinding.


  1. I have asked for this for Christmas but I haven't let myself have too high expectations, so hopefully I won't be disappointed. It is nice to see a balanced review of it.

  2. I, too, thought the writing of this novel to be gorgeous. Unfortunately, the story itself feel flat in a number of places. Still, the book is worth reading just for the beautiful, magical imagery.

  3. I loved this book mostly because of the writing. I actually felt like I was at the circus. However, I felt that Celia and Marco could have been better developed, even though the circus was the main character. Glad you liked it for the most part though.

  4. I loved this book! It was one that I hated to put down and have recommended to more than one friend. The story held my attention - I couldn't wait to get back to it everyday. A really good read for those who love fantasy...and magic and illusion. I'll read it again!
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  5. The Night Circus is a dazzling display of the artistry, the imagination and the intelligence of Erin Morgenstern. I can hardly believe this is her debut novel! It is such an extraordinary, flawless achievement! It ultimately speaks of humanity's search for the same basic, unknown force from which everything came and into which everything will return.
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  6. The novel approaches what could conventionally be called its climax about 40 pages from the end. But Morgenstern has created so many characters, so many different narratives to care about, that the resolution of the illusionists' contest has become simply one of many stories. I was grateful for the remaining 40 pages to tie together the other narratives intertwined with the illusionists' story. This was altogether a beautiful novel, and I was sad to see it end. Like the rêveurs, I wanted to travel along with the circus for awhile longer.

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