Written by: Erin Morgenstern
Review: 3 / 5 stars
Summary: Beyond the smoke and mirrors of a magical circus, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists who have been trained since childhood irrevocably bound by mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.
“The most difficult thing to read is time. Maybe because it changes so many things.”
Review: This novel has been at the top of my to-read list for a very long time, on the suggestion by various others. When I finally got around to reading it, I emitted the same noise I normally do when finishing hyped-up books: a sigh, not of content, but of complacency. The Night Circus is beautifully written, no doubt, and I oftentimes felt like Morgenstern had so successfully implanted me into the story that she had a direct wire to my brain, but everything that it claimed would make it unique – the circus setting, the magic, the forbidden romance – fell short of even my best predictions for a tired story.
The plot, while promising at the beginning, never really truly picks up. This isn’t to say that it is boring or badly written, but simply that I feel like not much really changed by the end of the book. At the center of the book are Marco and Celia, who begin the story as two young magicians pitted against each other to suffice the whims of their masters, and several of the first few chapters are spent discussing the differences in how they are trained. Then, their “arena” is chosen, through the creation of the Le Cirque de Reves, or Circus of Dreams. The story of how the circus is created by the mundane characters, and then enhanced by the magical ones, was intriguing, promising, and beautiful to read about. However, it is when the circus begins that my attention in regards to the plot begins to wane. First of all, there is never any “duel” between Marco and Celia who, surprise surprise, fall in love with one another. As even the summary admits, instead they “collaborate”, and while the results are fantastical and amazing, the actual process of collaboration is never actually discussed. I always wanted to know how, exactly, Marco created the Ice Forest, or Celia the Cloud Room – how long it took them, what tools they may have needed, if their magic arose from complex hand gestures or more psychic sources. But instead, all we see are the results and small changes here and there. Additionally, the end of the story just had me kind of staring at the pages, feeling relatively detached from the final scene and its fallout.
The Night Circus, however, is one of those few books where the underdeveloped and unexplored sub-plots seem more interesting than the main story. First of all, there is the story of the young circus admirer, Bailey, and his developing relationship over the years with the circus’ twins, Widget and Poppet, that I felt was supposed to lead something more important than what it was actually used for. But with the introduction of Bailey, as well as a few stories here and there about some of the circus’ benefactors such as Thiessen and his crew of Reveurs and the mysterious dinner group including Chandresh, Barris, and the Burgess sisters, Morgenstern gave us a glimpse of the real world surrounding the circus, and the interactions were enticing. I wanted to see more of how the circus affected the world around it, because I believe that much magic should have a lasting impact on the environment around it – such as full gardens arising from the old sites of the circus, or citizens within close proximity to the circus developing their own small bits of magic. But, as I said above, the “magic” that Morgenstern promises is rarely even used. A large portion of the time, the magic is used almost in mundane manners, or just as a slight mention; there is no necessity in using it. Ultimately, I feel that a book about Prospero and Mr. A.H., Celia and Marco’s benefactors, and the various “duels” they have orchestrated over the years, as well as whatever instigated this tradition, would have been the most interesting story to read, rather than allowing for Marco and Celia’s supposed “love story” to take center stage.
And although Morgenstern could write about a seedy subway station and make it beautiful, she fails to make her characters seem even half as appealing. Marco and Celia are about as flat as they come; neither appeals to me as a human or as a magician, and their love story is underdeveloped, unoriginal, and almost immature in that Morgenstern obviously intends for it to be a great story, and it is far from so. As for the rest of the circus performers, all but the young twins and the contortionist Tsukiko are delved into so little that most of them are not even named, and for good reason. Their consistent age, unwavering health, and apparent meager skills add little to the plot, despite the promise of a grandiose circus setting. Additionally, anybody who claims that the circus is its own character is delusional; obviously, the circus’ changing mood and tents is directly correlated to those of Celia and Marco, meaning it has no personality of its own after all. While Bailey, Thiessen, and the other Reveurs were promising as characters, they, too, were introduced only at the surface level and used only as plot devices; the same could be said of the dinner benefactors, Barris, the Burgess sisters, and even Chandresh. Perhaps Morgenstern intended for their meager development to be symbolic of how little they actually affected the circus, as most of the changes and its survival was almost entirely dependent on Marco and Celia, but why mention them at all? Truly, the only characters, to me, that were worth learning more about and exploring further were Prospero and Mr. A.H., as their reasoning behind the duel and the circus is never truly explained. Morgenstern missed a great opportunity in delving into this plot line.
Ultimately, the reason I gave The Night Circus three stars instead of two is because I can tell that Morgenstern had more in mind for the book than what is on the pages. In her head, I know that there is a fantastical universe surrounding the Le Cirque des Reves, and that the characters are all individual cogs in the machine that work cohesively to keep the circus alive – and that is what intrigued me about the book. But Morgenstern only sketches, rather than draws, this picture among the pages of her novel, and her failure to develop the characters as well as the plot is what keeps this book in my lower half of ratings. However, I would read more about the Le Cirque des Reves or more of Morgenstern’s work if i have the opportunity to, because she does have some promising ideas that could lead to more impacting stories.