The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Fantasy. 2012. 528 pages)
The circus is open only at night. It arrives without warning and is gone again just as quickly. It is a circus of dreams, of fantasies beyond imagining. To its spellbound visitors, the Night Circus seems magical. This is because it is. Literally.
Morgenstern’s debut novel (and may I just pause here and let my mind boggle at the fact that such a complexly interwoven, beautifully written book is a freshman effort) tells the story of two young magicians locked in a battle of illusions. The Night Circus is their stage and the stakes are higher than either of them realize or can imagine. Beyond this, though, the book tells the story of the circus itself — of the performers who call it home, the people who created it, and the visitors who love it. This tale is whole, round, and complete.
We meet the protagonists, Celia and Marco, in their childhood, when they are apprenticed to two of the world’s most powerful and jaded magicians. We see their training at the hands of their respective masters, cold and calculating, and are given glimpses of the incredible circus they will help create. The story is revealed not linearly, but in swoops and arcs that circle back endless on one another. The opening chapters of the book are instantly compelling — Morgenstern has a true gift for painting pictures with words and the world she builds is one the reader (or at least this reader) will find themselves almost desperate to spend time in.
Then, finally, we watch as the Night Circus itself takes shape. Celia and Marco — still strangers to one another — create illusions within the circus. Each illusion is an entry in their decades-long competition. The things they create are fantastic. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking. And soon they become love letters between the two young magicians.
As the stakes in their contest are gradually revealed — and the consequences to everyone involved in the Night Circus itself are unveiled — Celia and Marco search for a way to escape the cruel destiny their masters have planned for them. I will not spoil things by revealing whether they succeed or fail. I will merely say that the denouement is well worth waiting for.
The Night Circus not only tells a beautiful tale — at once sad and joyous — it also tells it with language as gorgeous as it is compelling. Erin Morgenstern’s novel is not only about magic, it is magic.