Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

BookReviewTheNightCircus

The Night Circus caught my attention a while back, with its slick vector cover and stark black, white, and scarlet contrasted colouring. I didn’t pay it much attention and it remained in my collection of 300+ books on the TBR pile until I read the pretty but disappointing debut novel that was Caraval. Multiple Goodreads reviews likened Caraval unfavourably to The Night Circus — that was, they felt Caraval was a poor attempt at the mystery and magic of a fantasy circus with a darker streak as The Night Circus had done.

Contains spoilers, duh.

The Night Circus had quite a classic, fantasy feel that reminded me of The Little Princess and The Secret Garden with its omniscient narrator and multiple flipping POVs, following the story of two magicians, Celia and Marco, and their magical contest in a battle to be the best whilst enchanting the show that was Le Cirque des Rêves.

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I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. Overall, I think I like it, with its gripping narration that kept me flipping from page to page despite there actually being very little action and conflict. I certainly kept going back to it and had no regrets upon finishing it, eagerly checking to see if Morgenstern had sequels in store or other publications (sadly, none, currently).

Celia and Marco, the protagonists, are both in a contest to see who was the better magician, as demonstrated by who can create the most mesmerising wonders in Le Cirque des Rêves using genuine magic disguised as tricks, but they make no physical contact (as far as they were both aware) throughout most of the novel and there seems to be nothing at stake, because both their mentors endlessly handwave the rules of the game, its measurements of success, and its consequences. We and the protagonists are constantly told they must win, but no definition of a victory is revealed until almost at the end. There is no actual explanation about the magic that Celia and Marco use and very little revealed about the limitations, but the descriptions are entertaining and paint vivid pictures for me every time. Celia is barely motivated to win and only continues at the behest of her phantom-bodied father. Her motivation to keep the circus running was out of her love for it. Marco’s motivation to win initially also stemmed from her trainer’s behest, but later developed into curiosity as he was the first to discover the identity of his opponent — and fall in love with her. And then, the circus begins to unravel.

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Celia and Marco are both rather dull characters, although Celia does have her feisty and endearing parts. Marco is painted as the typical one-track-minded boy (he must win the contest, he must defeat his opponent) who then becomes flummoxed when his goals clash with his growing attraction to Celia. The distant narration meant it was hard for me to step into either protagonists’ heads, meaning I watched the story unfold like I was an outsider, rather than experience the thrill of the contest and ache of the conflict between winning and love up close and personal.

I’m sure what I said above seems to paint a rather negative picture of the book and, truth be told, I’m not sure why I enjoyed reading it as I can’t seem to pick glowing parts to praise. But I read it all the way to the end and I liked it. I didn’t see the resolution coming and found it a satisfying wrap-up, although I felt it could have been clearer just what Celia and Marco had become by jumping in Tsukiko’s spell at the end. Poppet and Widget inheriting the circus seems a just and appropriate move, but the insertion of Bailey seemed almost… out of the blue? The author tries to explain his significance by the fact that he wasn’t significant, but rather he chose to be part of the circus rather than is born or chained to it as the twins and Celia and Marco were, but his presence felt quite deux ex machina to me.

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I don’t know. It’s a strange book. Enjoyable, but not sure why. Strange, for the abovementioned reasons. Quite unique.

Verdict: 4 stars. Odd but likeable.

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