During this past summer, after reading a string of realistic, everyday-life novels, I began looking for the next Harry Potter book – a new, imaginative, escapist fantasy novel to sink my teeth into.
I was hoping to find it in The Night Circus, the debut novel by Erin Morgenstern, though the book was not exactly like I had expected, both in a positive and negative way.
I found the concept of the novel, which is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and takes place in New York, Paris, London, and several other places, very intriguing.
It centers on the competition between two old rivals, who have each tirelessly trained a pupil in the art of magic and illusion in order for these two children to engage in a death match of wit and skill once they are older and their skills have developed.
On one side is Prospero the Enchanter, who was once the world’s most famous illusionist, and his motherless daughter, Celia, who has inherited his skill of manipulation. He takes a direct and often brutal approach in strengthening his daughter’s natural talent, including slicing open her finger in order for her to heal the wound with her own mind.
On the other end is a mysterious man known only as Mr. A.H- and an orphan named Marco, who was hand-picked by the man out of several other orphans because of his precocious mind.
Mr. A.H- or as he’s often referred to in the novel as “the man in the gray suit” – takes a more academic approach to teaching the boy magic, using books and lessons to help him learn magic as if it were just a trait. When these two children grow up, a venue known as Le Cirque de Reves (French for “Circus of Dreams”) is chosen as a sort of stage for these unbeknownst competitors and members of the circus to engage in a deadly competition.
At first the two don’t know the identity of their opponent, and aren’t told much about the competition itself except that only the victor will live to see the end of it.
They do eventually find out about each other though, and fall in love despite being bound in this dangerous and potentially tragic game.
I also found the characters to be very interesting and likeable, each with their own quirky personalities, abilities, and emotions.
Besides Celia and Marco, there are the twins, Poppet and Widget, who were raised in the circus and have taught their pet cats to do numerous stunts.
Isobelle, the fortune teller and Marco’s former love interest and Tsukiko, the mysterious contortionist are also endearing character favorites.
Chandresh Lefevre, the ambitious owner of the circus and Bailey, a young boy who attends Le Cirque de Reves who becomes so enchanted by the circus that he wants to escape his own boring life and run away with it, are among the beautifully descriptive characters Morgenstern creates in this novel.
Still, there are some things about the fantasy elements in this novel that I find a little offputting.
Maybe it’s because I grew up reading the “Harry Potter” series, where every page seemed to welcome a different shocking and at times comical magic spell, but I found the illusions and magic in this book to be a little too subtle and ordinary.
Yes, I understand that Morgenstern was taking a more realistic approach of magic, with Celia being able to change the color of her dress and hair with her mind and make clothing turn into birds, but I still think she could’ve pushed the envelope more in terms of what these characters could do.
For a novel that’s centered on a competition of who can outdo the other in magic and illusion, I expected something flashier than what I read.
The novel itself was also a little hard for me to get into at first. It’s mainly because the storyline is not linear at all – it’s constantly switching between different years and different characters.
Beneath the illusions, magic, wonder, and smoke and glass, Le Cirque de Reves is not exactly what it seems.
It harbors some dark secrets beyond the competition between Celia and Marco, and you start to realize that there’s more to the story besides the deadly rivalry between the star-crossed lovers.
The very foundation of the circus is fragile, and not even the most powerful illusion can hide it.
Even with its flaws, the novel still manages to get a lot of things right. I cannot deny that I love what Morgenstern was trying to go with this novel.
She writes with style, creates very eccentric characters and vivid settings, and succeeds in writing some very emotional parts without ever getting too desperate or cheesy, which is hard to do with a star-crossed romance subplot.
Though the book isn’t perfect and isn’t quite as “escapist” as I hoped it would be, it’s definitely a great debut novel for a promising writer, and is an all-around enjoyable read.
Bottom line, if you’re looking for an intriguing and at times dark part deadly competition, part star-crossed romance set in a circus, this book is for you.
If you’re expecting the next Harry Potter or Twilight, then it might not be your cup of tea. The Night Circus is unique in its own right as a realistic fantasy romance novel.