Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

During the month of August I took a crack at the summer version of National Novel Writing Month, Camp NaNoWriMo, and managed to make the 50,000-word goal.  Suffice it to say that while I’m pleased to have finished the challenge, and I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses as a fiction writer, I will not be showing the resulting story to anyone any time soon.

All of that makes Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus even more remarkable in my eyes.  See, The Night Circus began as a NaNoWriMo novel way back in 2005.  I’m sure Morgenstern has revised it a lot in the years since — for one thing, it’s expanded from NaNoWriMo length to a hefty 400+ pages — but I’m amazed and delighted that this book was born when Morgenstern challenged herself to write 1667 words a day for a month straight.

The Night Circus opens with a description of a mysterious black-and-white circus that seems to appear from nowhere.  We then shift to New York in 1873, when stage magician Prospero the Enchanter discovers that he has a daughter, Celia.  We soon learn that there is more to Prospero’s magic than smoke and mirrors, and that Celia has inherited much of his ability.

Several months later, Prospero brings a man to meet Celia — a rival named Alexander.  He challenges Alexander to train a pupil who can compete with Celia in a mysterious, unspecified contest.  Called upon to provide his own combatant in the contest, Alexander visits orphanages until he finds a suitable pupil: a nameless boy who christens himself Marco.  As young adults, both Celia and Marco find themselves employed by the newly-opened Cirque des Réves — and gradually, it becomes clear that the Night Circus is the arena in which they are competing.

The Night Circus doesn’t read like a book that was ever written quickly.  The book is slow, atmospheric, eerie, and heartbreaking in turns.  The nature of the contest remains unknown for much of the book; the first half is devoted to telling us about Marco and Celia, and to introducing us to an enchanting array of supporting characters, including the contortionist Tsukiko, young twins Poppet and Widget Murray, and circus-worshiping clockmaker Friedrick Thiessen.

Despite the wonder of the setting and the interesting supporting characters, the book wouldn’t work if we didn’t care about Marco and Celia. Fortunately, Morgenstern has created two compelling, sympathetic, and occasionally awe-inspiring leads.  Quiet, mysterious Marco works behind the scenes, seemingly exposing himself to no one.  Celia hides in plain sight as the circus’s illusionist, pretending — as her father did — that her magic is mere trickery.  I empathized with their mutual frustration as their instructors refused, time and time again, to explain the rules of the contest to them; I delighted in the ways they found to enthrall the circus’s visitors.  Morgenstern has a talent for making extraordinary things seem tangible, for making us secretly believe that we might go outside our town and find a circus where we can walk through a garden made of ice and climb through a three-dimensional maze made of clouds.

My one warning for those who pick up the book is that it does start a bit slowly.  We don’t get through very much plot in the first half of the book; I thought the pacing was perfect, but some readers may find it too leisurely.  Things pick up around the halfway mark and at three-quarters of the way through the book I couldn’t put it down.  This is one of those rare magic-tinged books I would recommend even to fantasy skeptics.  It’s a truly lovely story.

Rating: Buy it

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