Book review: Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”

When “The Night Circus”, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, first made its way onto the bookstore shelves less than a month ago, it came with the sort of buzz and marketing that would make any reader’s eyebrows shoot straight up.

Aside from comparisons to “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”, the publicity machine behind “The Night Circus” was also putting it in the same league as New York Times’ bestselling authors Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. The hype was further intensified when film rights to the novel were snapped up by Summit Entertainment, the same group behind the “Twilight” series of films.

Now that “The Night Cirucs” has come into town, readily available on your local bookstore’s shelves, will it live up to the immense expectations set by its own advance press? Or will all prove to be just smoke and mirrors in the end?

“The Night Circus” tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians schooled in two very different schools of magical thought. At a very young age their destinies are intertwined by their two mentors, who pit them against each other in a magical duel, set within the confines of Le Cirque des Reves, a fantastical traveling circus.

With the aid of their magic, Celia and Marco make Le Cirque des Reves a resounding success, their attempts to outdo each others’ magic producing captivating attractions that only increase Le Cirque des Reves’ renown. Their “additions” to the circus not only affect its visitors, as even those involved in staging it – from Le Circque des Reves eccentric owner to two twins born on opening day – find themselves privy to many strange and wonderful occurrences.

However, things take an unexpected turn when Celia and Marco find themselves falling in love with each other after years of constant battling on the circus grounds. This is an unwelcome development for both of their mentors, who both dissuade their students from following their feelings, to no avail.

As Celia and Marco find themselves falling deeper and deeper in love with each other, they find out that the stakes of the game they are playing are higher than they previously thought. With so much more than just winning on the line, will Celia and Marco’s love be enough to see them through?

If there is one thing that is immediately clear once you start reading the first few chapters of “The Night Circus”, it is the fact that the hype that came before its publication may not have been misplaced after all.

Within the novel’s first few chapters, Morgenstern displays an excellent control of her words, easily enthralling the reader with elegant descriptions and a gift for subtlety and sparseness that only heightens the slightly macabre elements spread throughout the book.

Morgenstern also reveals a talent for misdirection. The construction of her novel – which switches from third-person view to second-person view and jumps back and forth in time with no apparent rhyme or reason – make some twists and turns the novel takes seem much more surprising than they actually are, and keeps the readers on their toes and constantly curious as to what happens next.

Morgenstern also succeeds in making the many attractions that Celia and Marco conjure for Le Cirque des Reves as appealing to the readers as they seem to be to the circus’ legion of loyal followers. With such wonders as the Labyrinth and the Ice Garden so skillfully described and brought to life, readers will be hard-pressed to leave this magical world behind.

That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its faults. Much like the circus’ two-tone motif, Morgenstern’s strength in world-building provides a stark contrast to a weakness at constructing a compelling plot.

For most of the book’s more 380 plus pages, there is very little movement to be had, other than the circus’ excursions all over the world. Readers are as kept in the dark about the specifics of the magical duel as Celia and Marco are, and the attempt to clear things up at the novel’s climax only partly succeeds.

The romance between Celia and Marco, arguably the heart of the novel, won’t inspire the same spark in the readers that the circus attractions probably will, and they are not as charismatic as one would like central characters to be.

Nevertheless, these kinks in the fabric of Morgenstern’s novel are not enough to detract from the magic that she weaves in the chapters that focus on Le Cirque des Reves and the many intriguing characters that live within it. Flaws and all, “The Night Circus” is as strong a debut as one can hope, with its many curiosities lingering in the reader’s mind even after the final page has been turned.

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