The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern was signing the new paperback edition of The Night Circus at BEA, and I picked up one for myself based on the good reviews I’ve seen online.

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern

The Premise: (from the back blurb) “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 both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

Read an excerpt of The Night Circus here

My Thoughts: This story is all about the magical atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Rêves (aka The Circus of Dreams), which is a circus unlike any other circus in the world. This is a circus of Wonder, swathed in black and white. One tent holds a garden made entirely of ice, another holds a vast labyrinth of rooms. The carousel animals breathe, and the food always tastes better than one remembers. Guests move from tent to tent, sampling performances and marvels, but one visit is never enough to see everything. Adding to the special atmosphere of the circus is that it appears as if from no where and is only open at night.

Of course, if the Night Circus seems impossible, that’s because it is. Unbeknownst to the regular people who visit the circus and even to the people that work in it, the Circus is actually a dueling ground for two magicians from opposing schools of thought. Their weapons are their students, Celia and Marco. Since childhood, these two were trained by their respective teachers in the art of magic. Celia’s teacher is her father, Hector Bowen, who goes by the stage name “Prospero the Enchanter”. Marco is an orphan chosen by a mysterious man in a grey suit and the initials “A. H.” Each is taught by an indifferent (and sometimes cruel) father figure, and each is told that one day they would use their knowledge against an unknown other. All they know is that they are bound to someone, and when the circus comes, the game begins.

The Night Circus is a different kind of story, mostly because this is one of those books that actually feels setting-driven. It is all about the circus. All the character’s stories revolve around or are pieces of the circus’s history. The battle between the two magicians is the propellant for its birth, but once it starts to grow, that’s when the cast of characters surrounding it grow too, and they are often as surprising as the circus. First there are the creatives that gather at midnight dinner parties at the eccentric Chandresh Christophe LeFevre’s house planning its execution — a retired prima ballerina with exquisite taste, two fashionable sisters with fine-tuned observational skills, a renowned architect/engineer, and Marco and Mr. A. H–. When the circus is opened, Celia becomes part of the endevour as the Circus’s illusionist, and she is joined by the circus folk. Some of these people seem to have a touch of magic as well, including a mysterious contortionist, a fortune teller who reads the future, and twins born on either side of midnight on opening night. Celia and Marco’s relationship grows alongside the circus itself in a complicated game of one-upman-courtship.

The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience.
Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent.
It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that.
There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines.
The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs s she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more than the forewarned drop in temperature.
There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain.
And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice.
Curious, Celia picks a frosted peony from its branch, the stem breaking easily.
But the layered petals shatter, falling from her fingers to the ground, disappearing in the blades of ivory grass below.
When she looks back at the branch, an identical bloom has already appeared.

The timeline of The Night Circus spans several years. It starts with a wager in 1873, and the bulk of the story spans a few decades after that. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, and dates and locations are provided at the beginning of each chapter. Very cheekily, there are interludes between chapters, without a date, but the point of view is secondary — “you” are in one of the tents of the circus (perhaps the date is now?) experiencing the anticipation, the pool of tears, the house of mirrors and other circus tents yourself. There is also a secondary story, beginning 11 years after the circus opens, about Bailey — a dreamer and one of many that loves with the circus. His story dovetails nicely into the main narrative as the story expands.

So remember how I said this was a setting-driven story? It’s so focused on atmosphere that The Night Circus is like a wonderful, comfortable dream. Like a dream, I was spirited off to a place where amazing things happened, but there was a buffer between me and what was going on. I was having a grand ol’ time marveling over the very visual descriptions of the circus and being charmed by the unique and likable characters, and while I did care when bad things happened, but I wasn’t gutted by them. I do not think that this is a failing of the book — it just felt to me that this book was more an imaginative treat than it was something real that I was supposed to connect to emotionally. That’s OK. Sometimes I want to read something that just takes me away to a beautiful place for a while and be told a pretty story. It was a fairytale basically.

Overall: Very lovely story where the circus is the star. Reading this book was like gorging myself on a buffet of artisan chocolates, marzipan, and Turkish Delights. It was just so lush in description, and it felt like the story had much the goal of a circus: to entertain and amaze. The Night Circus was a fairytale steeped with visual wonder, but like all fairytales, even though there was love, loss, and even impending doom, I felt removed, like I was reading it through the lens of “this couldn’t possibly be real”. It really is a circus of dreams.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers (joint review): 9 (damn near perfection), and 8 (excellent)
Books Take You Places – 5 out of 5
Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews – 4 out of 5 (“Whether or not one enjoys “The Night Circus” will likely have a lot to do with whether or not the reader prefers a story that enjoys a romantic dreaminess”)
Once Upon a Bookcase – “It’s not just a story, it’s an experience”
The Canary Review – 3 canaries (out of 5) (“It sounds wonderful, and dreamlike, which is the intent, but after a certain point I am jaded enough to have my doubts”)
Sophistikatied Reviews – DNF
The Hiding Spot – “If this magial place was real, I think I’d run away to join the circus.”
Babbling about Books and More – A
The Allure of Books – “I definitely recommend picking up this novel if you’re a fan of fantasy”
For Love and Books – 5 hearts (out of 5)

The Night Circus Deleted Chapter
The Night Circus game

25 thoughts on “The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

  1. I *definitely* loved the description of the circus, and I completely agree that this is a setting-driven story. However, I still found myself wishing that the character’s narrative arcs were as compelling as the circus. It didn’t help that I didn’t like Marcus all that much, and the ambiguity behind the goal of The Game drove me up a wall (though I’m sure it’s not meant to be looked in to too much; but I wanted to know damnit!)

    All in all, I liked it, but I far from loved it. I can see why it’s loved by so many people though. (:

    • I felt like I understood the goal – to prove that one method of learning magic is better/stronger than the other, so the two shadowy magicians keep pitting their students against each other to prove it, except you would think since they’ve played this game enough times already they’d be satisfied, so maybe boredom, pride, and a lack of humanity is behind it too. Or one of the students always seems to give up for the other instead of it being a true case of maintaining magics until one dies so they can never prove one school is better? But it did feel like in imagining this story, the circus came first, the explanation for it came after.

      *Nod*. I liked it too, but didn’t LURVE. This would have been a home run if the characters had been more than just — amazing people. If they were more human and flawed and if the story was more about them than the circus.

  2. Yes. So much this. I really loved the experience of reading this book, though like you I felt distanced from the characters. Thinking of it as a fairy tale is an apt description.

  3. I adored this book so much. The writing is so beautiful and the love story slayed me. I hope Erin writes more and isn’t a one hit wonder author. I can’t wait for this to be made into a movie.

  4. If I had known the author as signing at BEA, I would’ve stood on line for this book. You always find out about great stuff AFTER it’s happened. Sigh. But this book sounds beautiful–and I love particularly love how well you captured the book’s atmosphere with your lovely review. THIS LINE: “Reading this book was like gorging myself on a buffet of artisan chocolates, marzipan, and Turkish Delights.” I want to draw little curly hearts all over this review but particularly THAT line, hehe.

    • Aw, I’m imagining curly hearts now. Thank you! 🙂 It really is a gorgeously descriptive book, like I thought of the rich candy analogy because: So. Much. pretty descriptions.

      It’s so difficult to plan for BEA. I wish I’d known about Mike Holmes. I swear I peer over the list of authors and always miss SOMEONE every year.

    • It was pretty cool to find that one. 🙂 There’s lots of good stuff on the author’s website. A game too — I plan to try that out at some point.

  5. I love this review, Janice! I think you’ve described this book perfectly–reading it is like existing in a dream, and the setting is in and of itself the main character and the story. I was so curious at the start to see how all of the various points of view came together in the end, and overall I was extremely happy. I didn’t, however, feel a lot of the characters. I liked them, but still didn’t feel invested in the romance. The twins were my favorite! I want to know of more books like this out there for those times when you need an escape.

    • Yes, I think we are in sync with our reactions on this one. Really liked it even if there were things I didn’t connect to – the romance was sweet and all but I wasn’t invested.
      Oh I was trying to think of other books like this but couldn’t really come up with any. Maybe Gaiman’s Stardust (for that feeling of fairytale) and Neverwhere (for the setting?) but not quite. It also makes me sort of think of the movie Big Fish for the fantastical and oddball characters, but in that movie I did connect a bit more to characters and the narrator.

      • Agreed on both those things! I love both Big Fish (though I haven’t read that book) and Stardust (both book and movie). =)

        I liked the characters more in both of those though

        • I haven’t read the book but Big Fish is a movie I really like because it reminds me of my dad and HIS stories, which always seem to involve life or death. 🙂 Also Ewan McGregor. Stardust I mostly liked Claire Dane’s character and wasn’t so connected to anyone else.

  6. Your review has piqued my curiosity. I wonder if the emotional distance would work for me or not? Usually if I can’t connect, it’s a deal breaker. One of these days I will be picking up my copy. Maybe I can gift it if I don’t like it? 😉

    • Exactly. It’s REALLY hard to say how people will react to this one. I think most people agree it’s so visually appealing in it’s descriptions and for a lot of people, that is enough. But the part where it seems to go wrong for some people is the totally subjective matter of if the oddball characters and their lives is enough or if they need more meat there.

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  8. I’m really big on setting and atmosphere, so The Night Circus worked perfectly for me. And I agree about feeling like you are reading it through a lens and a sort of disconnect from the characters. It was more of a visual treat than anything else.

    Fantastic, accurate, thoughtful review, Janicu!

  9. Pingback: The Circus Arrives Without Warning… « Just Josh

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