The Night Circus Review

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, 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. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

The Night Circus was one of the most-hyped and most-liked books of 2011, nominated for a handful of Goodreads awards as well as the (much more prestigious) Alex Award. I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while now, based on the blurb and the cover art, and I finally had the time to sit down and get through it. So, did it live up to the hype? Well… Yes! And also? No!

You’ve probably noticed that heavily hyped books usually fall into one of two categories:

1. Oh my stars and angels, this book completely fulfilled/exceeded expectations, and I cannot wait until humans and books can legally marry so that I can properly express my love for this incredible masterpiece…


2. I want the hours of my life I spent reading this drivel back, and in addition, I would like that same number of hours to be subtracted from the life balances of the author as well as everyone who recommended this book to me, and added to my life balance instead, and since I know this outcome is impossible, I now believe that there is no justice or order in the universe, meaning that the author and recommending readers have even more to answer for because I have lost my faith in God and am now, in fact, an atheist. Way to go, you guys. Thanks for destroying my spiritual life.

Unfortunately, many heavily hyped books fall into category 2, but the few that fall into category 1 keep us all checking reviews and ratings to see if we’re missing something wonderful.

However, once in a great while, the planets align, the Druids perform a secret ritual, Great Cthulu stirs in his deep dreams, angels do the Hustle on the heads of pins, and a magical geode is cracked open to reveal a very rare specimen of literary achievement. I am referring, of course, to that great and terrible creature, The Book That Is Great but Also Terrible.

The Night Circus clearly resulted not from NaNoWriMo, but from such a confluence of events. It’s great. But sadly, it’s also terrible.

Who doesn’t love the circus, especially a circus with real magic and zero animal cruelty? Morgenstern creates a circus here that would make any Vegas show wither and die from envy. Cirque de Soleil? Dead. Blue Man Group? Dead. Siegfried and Roy and all those tigers? Dead and dead and all dead, and not because the latter ate the former. Morgenstern’s Le Cirque des Rêves, a black-and-white themed, nocturnally active, magically powered circus is an unparalleled work of imagination. What begins with standard but exceptional performers (acrobats, a contortionist, an illusionist) evolves into a wonderland of ice gardens, cloud mazes, and living carousels that left me entranced and desperate for a ticket. Especially since it’s open at night. I’m often awake late at night and NOTHING is open except Walmart, and Walmart is sure not a magical circus, plus they stock at night and you can’t ever get to the cookies you want without a big sweaty guy hustling over to move boxes so you can get to the cookies, which takes a lot longer than just reaching between the boxes like you were going to do to begin with, because you’re an adult and can get your own cookies and even if the boxes DID fall on you, they are full of potato chips so it’s not like they’ll crush your bones. But I digress.

The magic for the circus is provided by the protagonists, Celia and Marco. Celia and Marco each represent a different school of magical thought. Celia’s father trained her in the type of magic that she can draw from within herself. Marco’s mentor taught him to manipulate situations indirectly from afar. Bound into competition by their masters, Celia and Marco create and modify magical tents and attractions in an on-going competition to prove which school of magic is supreme. It’s kind of like Iron Chef, but with magical circuses instead…so, not very much like Iron Chef at all, except for the competition. However, neither contestant knows the rules of the game, how to win, or when it will end. As the so-called duel stretches on and on, Celia and Marco focus on impressing each other rather than some nebulous concept of victory, and inevitably they fall in love. Unfortunately, when the rules of the game finally come out, their love will be pushed to the breaking point. (Sort of.)

Sounds, well, magical, right? And it is, to an extent. The descriptions of the circus amazed me. Morgenstern evokes each detail, right down to the costumes and tent entrances. The concept is brilliant. But…

THIS BOOK IS SLOW. Nothing happens for over half the book. The cover promises a magical duel, but Celia and Marco never so much as yell “Expelliarmus!” All of their competition is indirect. You can’t have a fight to the finish without fighting, and these two just float along for years creating different exhibits in the circus, wondering when someone’s going to hand out the trophy. I’ve never seen such scant plotting in a full novel. Much of the text is taken up by the circus vignettes, leaving little room for action. When I hit the halfway mark and Celia STILL had not met Marco, I stopped enjoying the book and started wondering when something was going to happen. Even after the protagonists finally connect, the plot sits and waits until the conclusion to get a move on, and then it gets rather random and deus ex machina-ish. Also, you’re going to predict the ending correctly, I’ll just tell you that up front.

THE PLOT IS CONFUSING. It jumps back and forth between a handful of years often. The historical setting (turn of the 20th century) isn’t fleshed out, and I felt like the author just chose it for the purposes of adding to the nostalgic circus feel and so that she wouldn’t have to work tech into the story.

And finally, THE ROMANCE IS FLAT. The character development is completely lost to the circus’s development, so the love story was a very Walt Disney, “they’re in love because they are so stop asking questions,” kind of love story. Their relationship is too superficial because the characters are too superficial, and it’s never really put through a test because they’re powerful enough to find magical loopholes.

In some ways, this book was a crushing disappointment. I walked away with the impression that the author really wanted to publish all these wonderful circus scenes, so she threw together a slapdash story to unify them. I would like to have the plot surgically removed and the vignettes illustrated by someone brilliant (Shaun Tan! Shaun Tan! Shaun Tan should totally illustrate it because he is a hoss at drawing things), and then the whole thing turned into a big fat $50 coffee table book that I would actually buy even though I’ve never spent that kind of money on a non-textbook book before.

Still, its many narrative flaws aside, I really like The Night Circus and will not be asking for a refund of my admission price. If you are looking for a book to help you pleasantly pass the time, something that’s sweet as cotton candy, something that will give you all the wonder of Harry Potter with none of the heavy elements, and some absolutely fun and wonderful circus scenes that will make you remember what it’s like to experience the awe of being a kid at a circus, this book definitely gets my stamp of approval.

Now pass me that caramel corn. They’re sending in the clowns.

A black and white clown portrait.

My Ratings:

Concept: 5
Writing: 5
Character Development: 4
World Building: 4
Plot: 2
Pacing: 1
Ending: 3
Cover Art: 5

Overall: 3.6

Publisher information: Doubleday, $26.95 Hardcover, ISBN-13 978-0385534635

I purchased this book and received no monetary compensation from this review, which probably won’t surprise anyone since I wasn’t terribly nice to it.