The Night Circus is another book that, like The Help, came to me so overhyped that it could not possibly fulfill all those expectations. As it is, the book doesn’t even seem to match the unadorned description. Chances are if I’d come across it before I heard about it, I would have been at least interested; this is the sort of thing I usually like. What can I say? I like stories about magical circuses.
For starters, it’s nothing like the Harry Potter books–while it does have a bit about the education of wizards, there’s no school, no wizarding culture hidden from the non-magical world and especially no climactic confrontation between The Forces of Good and The Forces of Evil. It isn’t much of a love story, as the two “lovers” don’t seem to spend much time together getting to know one another before joining in a union of souls. It isn’t even much of a competition in the sense that we don’t see any head to head, or rather wand to wand duels, but rather seems to consist of creating tents/acts for a mystical magical mysterious circus. The readers (and the characters) aren’t even entirely sure what the rules of the game are! We have to wait for the two wizards who set the competition in motion to declare one or the other participants to be the winner, based on rules we know nothing about, and as we have no idea of the basis on which the competition is being judged, it’s all too easy to forget that there is a competition.
It reads rather as if Peter S. Beagle and Susanna Clarke collaborated to rewrite Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes–all three authors I like. The use of the present tense throughout combined with the changing perspective and jumps back and forth through time could be confusing or twee or just plain hard to read; this is not a particularly straightforward narrative by any standard and the shifts made it a little hard even for me to follow. Twee, pretentious or avant-garde and adventurous, your choice.
The plot is simple, though the construction of the novel makes it somewhat hard to read: two young people, Celia and Marco, have been set into a competition with one another by their warring magician fathers and have been trained all their lives for this very purpose. When the time comes for the contest to begin, a magical circus is created, Le Cirque des Rêves; travelling between towns on a train enchanted to appear as a freight train to outsiders, the circus appears without advance notice in towns, opening only between dusk and dawn, and vanishes away when their run is done in a town. Over the years, the circus attracts followers, called rêveurs (think DeadHeads), some of whom only attend when the circus is in their town but some who follow it from community to community. As originally set into motion, the competition between Celia and Marco will end in the death of one or the other…but they fall in love with one another and escape the competition thereby.
Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus and costuming is beautiful, and drew me in with her full five senses description of what it’s like to be enthralled by a circus–there’s a bit of magic in all circuses, I think. Her background in the visual arts really shows here. The training received by Marco and Celia is a bit odd; Bowen’s treatment of his daughter seems more abuse than schooling–how does breaking her wrist teach her to be an illusionist?The lack of information about the contest may be a sticking point for many readers; if the participants don’t even know the rules of the competition, much less how the winner is determined, how can they play properly? It never struck me as much of a competition in any case but rather a description of the challenges involved in running a circus, a daunting task even with magic. I’d have enjoyed it a great deal more if Morgenstern had either made the nature of the competition clearer, as in Johannes Cabal, Necromancer or left it out entirely.