The Night Circus was not what I expected. I knew it was a work of fantasy set in the Victorian era, with perhaps a few steampunk elements. What I didn’t expect was how thoroughly I’d enjoy this book. It has elements of mystery, romance, and magic, all expertly woven into an immersive and absorbing experience. In short, it’s amazing!
I first learned of the book at the Phoenix Comicon Fan-fest this November. I was chatting with fellow authors at the “Amazing Wicked Writers” booth when a woman walked by in a striking costume, a Victorian-style dress with vertical black and white stripes. When we asked about her costume, she replied it was from a novel called The Night Circus. It was slated for a movie adaptation that had not yet been made.
When I returned home I told my wife about it, who promptly did a Google search and found a really intriguing trailer* for the unmade movie. Curious, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle. From the first chapter, I was hooked.
The book opens as a mysterious circus has appeared in town without warning. The perspective is of a curious local who joins the crowd gathering at the gates to await its opening at sunset. Morgenstern’s rich description creates a feeling of intense anticipation and immediacy. After thus tantalizing the reader, she jumps back years into the past to when Prospero, a traveling stage magician, first meets Celia, his four-year-old illegitimate daughter.
The timeline continues in this fashion, tracing the circumstances behind the creation of the wondrous circus, interspersed with occasional scenes from the circus in its later glory. The central premise is that
Prospero is one of a handful of people with magical powers, which he uses to earn a living as an entertainer pretending to be a master illusionist. Celia has inherited these talents from her father, who puts her through a rigorous and cruel training regimen as they travel the world together. Meanwhile in London, Chandresh, a bored and wealthy bachelor, conceives a new project to occupy his time: the Cirque des Rêves, which means “Circus of Dreams.” He gathers a team of eccentric experts to bring it to fruition. Unbeknownst to Chandresh, the circus becomes the playing field for Prospero and his mysterious former mentor, who use their progeny to carry out a cynical magical contest which plays out over the ensuing decades.
Though the book’s timeline extends over many years, the pacing never seems slow. The multiple point-of-view characters are all very distinct, thus it has none of the confusion that sometimes ensues in similar books. Morgenstern’s descriptions are rich and evocative but never excessive, and always seem appropriate to the time period. An example is the wondrous clock standing in the courtyard of the circus. It is an intricate structure of woodwork and gears which morphs, rearranges and reforms itself over the course of each day. The circus is similarly complex, consisting of numerous tents featuring wondrous performers and exhibits between which audience members wander freely. Like the cosplay outfit I mentioned earlier, the circus is hued entirely in white, black, and shades of gray, with the attendees themselves supplying splashes of color.
As I progressed through the novel, I felt an intimate connection to its characters, not just the main protagonists Celia and her opponent Marco, but many others. Though at times the story was a trifle predictable, particularly regarding the ensuing relationship between Celia and Marco, there were plenty of surprises to keep me engaged. On finishing I felt profoundly sad – not just because it was over, but because I feared I might never write anything to match the magic of this book.
The Night Circus was published in 2012. To my knowledge, Morgenstern has not released any books since. This is a terrible travesty which I hope she will soon see fit to remedy. In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to read this book. You won’t regret it.
* I later discovered that this particular trailer was fan-made. There are several of these on You-tube; I’m not sure if any are official.