Book Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusI picked up The Night Circus with some vouchers I got for my birthday – so technically it was a present, which means that technically, it doesn’t count against my no-more-book-buying-until-you’ve-read-all-your-other-books pledge (which, incidentally, I disregarded many months ago anyway, so I’m not sure why I’m trying to justify it here…). Ahem. Anyway, I picked this up for two reasons. First of all, Erin Morgenstern wrote one of the NaNoWriMo pep talks last year, in which she discussed how the idea for The Night Circus grew out of several NaNoWriMo attempts. I loved the pep talk, and I was fascinated to see what a real, grown-up, published NaNo novel looked like! The second reason was that my twin sister has been raving about this book for months, and she’s very rarely that enthusiastic about books, so I thought I’d better check it out.

From the 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…

(Note: That’s the blurb from the author’s website, and I’ve trimmed it a bit, as it gave away a fairly major plot point! Fortunately, the blurb actually on the book doesn’t contain spoilers.)

First and foremost, this book is an absolute delight for the senses. Morgenstern describes everything in exquisite detail: not just the beauty and splendour of the circus, but everything from the streets of 19th century London, the backstage rooms of the theatres in which Celia grows up, the sparse townhouse and flat in which Marco learns his skills, and the fabulous parties thrown by Chandresh Lefevre, circus proprietor. It’s all so vivid and colourful (even the stylishly monochrome circus!) that I felt I could see, smell and taste the circus. It almost started to feel like sensory overload!

The actual plot was a little difficult to get into at first, partly because of the time span of the book. All in all, the events of the story take place over 30 years, and often several years are skipped over in between chapters. That made it feel a little fragmented to me, and as the story is quite slow to actually get going – it’s several chapters, spanning about 13 years, before much really happens as such – it did take me a while to warm to it. Once it got going though, it was incredibly difficult to put down. The central mystery of the book – what exactly is the competition Celia and Marco have been bound into – is masterfully plotted. The love story that develops between them is also incredibly touching. The idea of a love story featuring two protagonists who don’t even properly meet until half way through the book, falling in love with each other through the enchantments they weave, struck me as a very romantic.

I loved the idea of the circus at the centre of everything, with everyone’s fate bound up in it, not just Celia and Marco’s. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book for me were the sections that followed the other assorted characters bound up with the circus, but unaware at first of Celia and Marco’s competition and the true nature of the circus, as they slowly try to piece together what’s actually going on around them.

The only place this book falls down for me, and this is really a matter of personal preference, is that I never really felt like I knew Marco or Celia. I really like character-driven fiction: I like to get to know the people in the story, and understand why they do what they do. I never really felt that with this book, probably as an effect of the fragmented nature of the story. It felt all along like Celia and Marco were just being driven by events, and I never got a sense of who they really were. Some of the early scenes, with them learning magic as children, were really promising: one in particular sticks in my mind, of Celia as a small child, having her fingers sliced open by her father so she can learn how to heal herself. It was a horrifying, if brief, scene, and I would really have liked to see more exploration of what a childhood like that would actually do to a person. Similarly, the descriptions of Marco’s childhood training, in which he is left to study alone, almost completely without human contact, made me wonder how that child would cope as an adult. Unfortunately, I never really saw anything in the writing that would connect Adult Marco and Celia with Child Marco and Celia. They both seemed strangely well-adjusted; the only lasting effect of their abusive childhoods being magic powers.

That is a small complaint though, in a book I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed. I would certainly recommend this to anyone wanting something whimsical, magical, occasionally heartbreaking and ultimately satisfying to read this summer.

Verdict: 4/5

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1 Comment

  1. Fantastic review! This book came out in paperback this week and once again I was tempted to pick it up. Now I’m even more inclined. Anything 19th century London instantly has me. 🙂


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