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