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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.

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I was listening to a recent Writing Excuses podcast discussing the city as a character and special guest Sarah Pinborough made an off-hand remark that set me to pondering the connection between place and magic.

She mentioned that London’s gritty and historical character made it a city particularly easy to imagine as magical.  Though it has a far shorter historical resume than London, I’ve always felt the same was true of New York City.  Where does that dark, garbage-strewn alley lead?  To a magical land?  To hell?  Could the stall at the end of the row in the bathroom at the New York Public Library be a portal to another world?  Surely there are fairies living in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park?  Surely there are.

Not only the history of the place, the sense that it’s current incarnation is built on the bones of something older and darker and different, but also it’s mood of danger, excitement, and anonymity, lend New York an air of believable mystery, of magic.

Is this true of every place, though?  Is Newark, NJ a magical city?  Could we set a convincing urban fantasy tale in Miami or Dallas, or would New Orleans be better?  Is there something about the run-down, dilapidated corners of older places that make them better suited as magical settings, or can new, shiny cities provide inspiration too?

Another question: what about urban versus rural?  The countryside is magical, isn’t?  We can picture magic lurking in the dark, cool depths of an old growth forest and sparking in the bright, sunny charm of the pastoral world, with it’s crooked fences and falling-down stiles.  But what about in the manicured limits of a suburban park?  Does the vast swath of strip mall America provide a good setting for a magical story?  Will we find Selkies bathing by moonlight among the concrete fountains of open-air malls or a coven of witches dancing beneath the glow of parking lot lights?

When we devise settings for our stories, how important is location?  To what extent does the place we choose influence the flavor and believability of the magic woven into the narrative?  Can any place be magical?  Does taking a seemingly unlikely place for magic and making it work lend your story a freshness that setting it somewhere more obvious might not have achieved?

I like to think New York is a magical place, but maybe that’s because I live here and I love the city.  Perhaps we all feel that way about places we love – be they Savannah, GA or Palo Alto, CA.

What do you think?

Can we make magic anywhere, or are some places better-suited to telling magical tales?  Share your thoughts in comments!

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I’ve been thinking a lot about magic lately.  What is it?  How do we define it?

In times long past, the things we now know as science were often considered magic.  The ability to make an illness go away or a cake rise or a new metal emerge from the combination of two others.  The creation of new life.

Magic has also long been connected to religion.  The pagan ritual, the shamanistic trance, the demons lurking within a summoners circle.  There’s the power of illusion too — glamors, of course, but also the fleeting beauty found in between the lines of musical compositions or under the deft brush strokes of a master painting.

So, the unexplainable, the mystical, and the genius have given rise to the belief in magic in the past, but where do we find magic today?  Is today’s magic the next frontier of the scientific unknown? Teleportation.  Faster than light travel.  Death rays.  The zombie apocalypse.  Is much of what we like to think of as science fiction actually magic?

Maybe magic is nothing more than the belief in the impossible, the act of wishing the unthinkable and unreal into existence.  Maybe novelists are magicians.

What do you think?  How do you think of magic and where do you find it in today’s world?

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