fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erin Morgenstern studied theatre & studio art at Smith College. She is a writer and artist whose work is described as “fairy tales in one way or another.” The Night Circus is her first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: 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, “the Circus of Dreams”, 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, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love — a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead…

CLASSIFICATION: From a literature standpoint, The Night Circus reminded me of a cross between Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish. At times, however, The Night Circus feels more like a movie than a book, and in that regard I kept thinking of Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland) and Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch).

FORMAT/INFO: The Night Circus is 400 pages long divided over five titled Parts and chapters that are unnumbered, but titled and dated with the location included. Narration is in the third person — both limited and omniscient — via Celia Bowen, Marco Alisdair, the man in the grey suit, the Night Circus’ proprietor M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen; the Murray twins Widget & Poppet, the engineer Ethan Barris, the Burgess sisters Tara & Lainie, the fortune-teller Isobel, and the dreamer Bailey, etc. The book also features short interludes written in the second person. The Night Circus is a standalone novel.

September 13, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Night Circus via Doubleday. The UK edition will be published on September 15, 2011 via Harvill Secker.

ANALYSIS: It’s not every day that a book receives the kind of publicity that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has enjoyed. This includes a 175,000 first printing through its US publisher, foreign rights sold in over twenty countries, and a movie deal with Summit Entertainment (The Twilight Saga, RED, Astro Boy, The Hurt Locker) scored several months before publication. Then again, it’s not every day that a book like The Night Circus comes along.

Erin Morgenstern’s debut is a special novel, offering readers a magical, one-of-a-kind reading experience. An experience that may vary depending on the person. For instance, some readers might find themselves enchanted by the turn of the century setting; the novel takes place between February 1873 and January 1903 with an enigmatic circus serving as the main attraction. For others, it could be the story, a non-linear narrative that cleverly begins where the novel ends, with a competition between two magicians, a love story that challenges fate, and a dreamer faced with life-altering decisions contained in between. In some cases, the novel’s cast of charming and mysterious characters — Prospero the Enchanter and his daughter Celia Bowen; the man in the grey suit and his student Marco Alisdair; M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, proprietor of the Night Circus; the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen and the rêveurs; the Murray twins Widget & Poppet; the engineer Ethan W. Barris; the Burgess sisters Tara & Lainie; the fortune-teller Isobel; Mme. Ana Padva, a retired ballerina; the contortionist Tsukiko; the dreamer Bailey — might be the culprit. For yet others, it could be Erin Morgenstern’s accomplished writing and elegant prose:

Stories have changed my dear boy. There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story? Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act. Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with his prey.

For me, it’s the sense of wonder I felt as I was reading The Night Circus. The same kind of feeling I had when I first read Alice In Wonderland or the Arabian Nights or Harry Potter. This sense of wonder is a combination of many factors including the author’s vivid imagination; a dreamlike ambiance that exists throughout the novel; characters who are full of magic, both real and symbolic like the Murray twins born at the very same time Le Cirque des Rêves first opened; and a story comprised of several mysterious subplots: the purpose of the contest, the relationship between the man in the grey suit and Hector Bowen, the bond between the Night Circus and its performers, how Bailey and the rêveurs fit in the picture, etc. Of course, of all the wonderful things that Erin Morgenstern manages to include in her novel — Midnight Dinners, a ship made of books sailing upon an ocean of ink — nothing is more captivating than the circus itself. With its black-and-white theme and astounding attractions — the Carousel, the Wishing Tree, the Labyrinth, the Stargazer, the Cloud Maze, Bedtime Stories, the Drawing Room, the Menagerie, the Ice Garden, the Hall of Mirrors, the Pool of Tears — the Night Circus is truly a “feast for the senses”:

More than a carnival. More than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that. Nothing commonplace. This will be different, this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theatre, an immersive entertainment. We will destroy the presumptions and preconceived notions of what a circus is and make it something else entirely, something new.

What it needs is style, panache. Ingenuity in its engineering and structure. To be infused with the mesmerizing, and perhaps a touch of mystery. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.

As amazing as The Night Circus is, especially for a debut, Erin Morgenstern’s novel is not perfect. For starters, characters lack depth and are unsympathetic because of the large cast and an omniscient/limited third-person narrative that prevents readers from becoming intimate with the novel’s characters. As a result, it’s hard to feel anything except indifference when a character dies, falls in love or is asked to make a difficult choice. At the same time, the story drags in certain places, while the novel’s climax and conclusion can feel a bit underwhelming.

Apart from these issues with the characterization and story, I have nothing but praise for Erin Morgenstern’s remarkable debut. Not only is The Night Circus one of the year’s best releases, ranking right up there with Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, it is a book that I highly recommend to anyone and everyone. After all, like attending an actual circus, The Night Circus is the kind of thing every person should experience at least once in their lifetime.

~Robert Thompson

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern Like many others reviewing The Night Circus, it was the hype that first drew my attention. Talk all over the internet, a huge display case in the local bookshop, rumours of a movie deal mere months after it had been published — I thought I may as well give in to the inevitable and read it.

In my opinion, every good book requires three things: 1) rich, vivid world-building, 2) a story that captivates the reader, and 3) interesting, three-dimensional characters with equally interesting, complex relationships. Naturally, this is something of a generalization, and obviously not every good book is going to contain all these qualities to the same degree. Some may be missing one of these aspects entirely, but can make up for it on the strength of the other two. Others can utilize all three factors, but only adequately, or manage to capture one so brilliantly that nothing else is necessary. And so on.

But for the purposes of this review, let’s pretend that this three-pronged approach to storytelling is an infallible method of crafting a decent novel – in which case Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus excels in one area, is pretty good in the other, but stumbles on the third.

The draw-card of The Night Circus is (naturally) the circus itself. The Cirque des Reves, or “the Circus of Dreams,” is a gloriously imaginative creation and a dream-like experience to both readers and characters. Beautifully designed and described in prose that only occasionally turns a shade of purple, this is a circus that arrives unexpectedly in the night, consists of dozens of tents in the shapes of pyramids, is entirely monochromatic in colour, and opens only once the sun goes down. Visitors enter through the gate and are free to wander the circular paths to discover the secrets that the tents hold. Every impression is captured: the sights, the smells, the sounds — Morgenstern has crafted a fully immersive reading experience.

Within this setting of a magical circus is the story itself, though it always feels secondary to the world that Morgenstern has created in which to *tell* that story.

The stage magician Hector Bowen (who uses the ironic stage name Prospero, though he’s about as far from Shakespeare’s devoted father and wise magician as you can imagine) returns backstage from a performance to find that his hitherto unknown daughter has just been delivered to his door, her mother’s suicide note pinned to her jacket. His initial reaction to her is not promising, but his interest is raised when she displays telekinetic powers.

Enter Alexander H, an old friend/foe of Hector, who is usually referred to as the man in the grey suit. He proposes a wager, and judging from their conversation, this is neither the first nor the last time that the two men have played such a game. The exact reason behind the wager is unclear, but it seems to have something to do with each man trying to prove the superiority of their magic and teaching methods. The competitors in this game are to be their own protégées: for Hector, it is his daughter Celia, for Alexander, it is Marko, a young boy he plucks out of an orphanage. Neither child knows the rules, they don’t know how to win or when they’ll win, and they don’t even know who their opponent is. Readers who are feeling generous could call this a metaphor for life; others may think it’s just an easy excuse to create the plot.

Only one thing is clear: the Night Circus is the venue. As each child grows into adulthood, each one goes through a traumatizing learning regime under their guardians, who control practically every aspect of their lives. By the time the circus opens, the two are fairly evenly matched: Celia has natural talent but little discipline, while Marko is rigorously pedantic, but lacks Celia’s raw power. The competition begins, and the beauty and magic of the circus grows with each move they make, gradually drawing closer to one another as they construct the sideshows and attractions that surround them.

Divided into five parts of varying lengths, the narrative leaps back and forth in time between the 1880s and the 1890s, and is told entirely in present-tense, the immediacy of which can get a little tiring after a while. Furthermore, certain segments address the reader directly, recounting the various experiences that one might expect in the Night Circus: “You are amongst the crowd, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.”

But a question hangs over the proceedings: when does the contest end? How is the winner decided? And what consequences await the loser? This brings us to the third quality of any decent story: the characters, who make up the heart of almost every novel – and here’s where The Night Circus fails.

Celia and Marko are two of the blandest, most uninteresting protagonists imaginable — and that’s a pretty astonishing feat given the richness of their surroundings and the dangers of the competition that they’re embroiled in. Any other character in the story, from the circus patrons to the performers, are more interesting than these two. As a result, their relationships suffer as well. The reader is given absolutely no reason to invest in the wishy-washy love story, for the two barely interact before we’re lead to believe that they can’t live without each other.

Other relationships, which contained the potential for conflict that could have been riveting, fall flat as well. Though Morgenstern gets some mileage out of Celia and Hector’s strained father/daughter bond, there is nothing on the Marko/Alexander front, and neither child seems particularly phased by the years of neglect and abuse they suffered. Marko starts a relationship with a young tarot reader called Isobel; she later joins the circus in order to spy on Celia for Marko’s benefit, but her thoughts and feelings concerning this matter (and the heartless way in which Marko treats her) is never really explored.

A past competitor is revealed to be working in the circus, fully aware of the new contest, but no insight is given on this potentially fascinating perspective either. We never learn the reason for the rivalry between Hector and Alexander, nor the background to their animosity. A boy called Bailey becomes captivated by the circus and has an important part to play in its fate; yet his obsession with the Night Circus feels perfunctory, more a plot-device than a character trait, and his involvement in the denouement feels more of a deus ex machina than an organic choice driven out of real passion for the circus.

It all seems a dreadful waste. No one in the book feels like a real human being — they’re all as distant and insubstantial as the circus itself. It’s a pity; as their personalities and relationships could have held the necessary grit and realism to ground the dreamy circus atmosphere. A story that relies almost entirely on a mysterious competition that no one can fully understand *needed* strong characters to carry it — otherwise, nothing is at stake. Without characters to invest in, it’s difficult to care about the resolution.

I enjoyed reading The Night Circus. I liked the central conceit and for the most part I liked the execution. But I never found it riveting. I could put the book down for breaks and not feel an urgent need to return to it. Reading it was like eating candy floss: sweet and tasty while it lasted, but dissolving almost instantaneously. Apparently the rights to the books have already been sold to Hollywood, in which case movie-goers are in for a visual feast when the story is adapted for the big screen. Until then, I just wish that the characters were worthy of the fantastical setting and the intriguing plot — which would have been all the more rewarding had the players in it not been so superficial.

Five stars for the world-building, three stars for the plot, and one star for the characters.

~Rebecca Fisher


  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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