Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (2011)

the-night-circusOoops, I’m late again! 😉 To make up for it, this time I will write a shorter review than usual ;). The Night Circus is a debut novel of Erin Morgenstern – and her only book to date. This novel won Locus Award in 2012 and acclaim of many critics and readers alike. And left me with a feeling of pointlessness of it all.

The book starts with a description of a circus. Or, rather, of THE circus, the ultimate circus there could ever been. Le Cirque des Rêves opens only at night. It is black and white, it consists of multiple tents and booths arrayed in a series of circles connected by winding alleys. It is circular, looping and continuous, and feeding on itself. A place of innumerable wonders, constant surprises, awe-inspiring performances – and a few mysteries. It shows up unheralded, it disappears unannounced – but when it’s there, it creates its own special reality, bending the rules of physics and testing the imagination of the spectators. A lovely place indeed.

But it wasn’t created for the sole purpose of bringing entertainment to others. The origins of the circus are much more sinister: Le Cirque des Rêves has been conceived as a battlefield, or an exhibition room, for a showdown between two types of magic, represented by two different teachers and their pupils. The pupils are chosen and meticulously groomed for the confrontation from a tender age – and they have no real knowledge of what they have really gotten into. Nor have it any other performers or owners of the circus – they all are manipulated by the two shady magicians, who keep to the shadows and from a distance watch the spectacle unfold before their eyes.

It is difficult to decide who the main protagonists are. I had the impression that it was supposed to be the circus itself, but its show was somewhat stolen by the two magicians’ apprentices. The girl’s name is Celia, the boy’s name – Marko. Their ultimate task is to outdo each other in magic, so that their contest is clearly won – to the satisfaction of both magicians. Marko and Celia set to work, each in his or her unique way. They create wonders within circus, one trying to impress the other, one responding to the other’s idea. At first, they don’t know their opponent’s face – they communicate only through the circus. But inevitably, they meet and immediately fall in love with each other. Must I say that their feelings go against the rules of the magic game?

And so the stakes are set, then raised, and then raised again. Circus expands and travels, garnering attention, devotion and love of the spectators and performers alike. There is even an elite group of circus’s followers who call themselves rêveurs and who incessantly talk and write about their unique experiences. There are several characters within the circus, whom we begin to like and care for – the twins born during the grand opening of the circus, the contortionist, the clockmaker, etc. The circus becomes a miniature living society – and this is exactly the problem. Why? Because Marko and Celia keep the circus alive. Without them, or after the conclusion of the contest, Le Cirque des Rêves will cease its existence. What will happen to the performers is unclear, except one thing – whatever happens, won’t be nice and fuzzy.

Morgenstern writes with imagination, surety and almost inhuman attention to detail. The structure of the book is thought-through and elegant, with aptly named introductions, clear five-part division, and short descriptive chapters. The prose is fluid, poetic, vividly graphical. The reader is overwhelmed with descriptions of smells, textures, shapes and hues, which are filling the pages of the book almost to the bursting point. Nothing is left to the readers’ imagination, each dress, spoon and lamp are described with painstaking care. It all should bring the world of “The Night Circus” alive before my eyes. It left me feeling bored instead, scanning the pages for a bit of a dialogue or action. The world of Le Cirque des Rêves felt flat and without life, and even though I tried, I couldn’t make myself care for the main protagonists – or for anyone else in the novel.

I understand why and how this book could enchant readers. It’s stylish, elegant, with a touch of mystery and magic, and with an alluring topic. It’s just that it didn’t enchant me. I’m not a big fan of circuses, never was – and I’m definitely not a fan of love stories. Ultimately that’s what I would call this story – a traditional love story with a strong fantasy element. If you like romances set in an ahistorical, slightly magical XIXth century, or you like circus, you will most probably like this novel. If not, however, there’s not much else in “The Night Circus” to catch your eye and keep you engaged.

P.S. But the cover(s) is(are) delicious – and, by the way, that’s why I picked up this book ;). The Force of a good cover… Can be outright creepy! 😉

Score: 6,5/10

5 thoughts on “Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (2011)

  1. piotrek

    Ok. That’s a book… I will probably enjoy, while in the right mood. I’m not reading lots of romances and I’m not a fan of circuses, but… elegant, stylish book with ahistorical XIX cent. setting… haven’t we recently differed on something like that ;)?


  2. Pingback: Spelling Bee :) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  3. piotrek

    Reblogged this on Re-enchantment Of The World and commented:

    Only second post this month and a re-post again. The first one had been planned for some time, to start the series and encourage our new readers to reach deeper into Re-E’s archives 😉 Today I’m commenting on a book that Ola reviewed over four years ago, and I’ve only just read. Next week – we will, hopefully, finish our post on Captain Marvel, just before the Avengers: Endgame premieres.

    The Night Circus was quite popular a few years ago, with awards and positive reviews and a beautiful cover. Reviews vary in tone (but it still has a great 4.04 Goodreads average with 564K ratings and 62K reviews!), cover still looks great.

    Why not a counter-review? Because in many ways I agree with Ola. I just like it a great deal more 😉

    I agree that the book is in many ways an exercise in style. Imagination, attention to detail, well thought-through structure, poetry and elegance – all there. Slow pacing, not much happening, romance too easy, ending perhaps a bit too happy (there were victims along the way, I don’t think that’s too spoilery…) – yes, I agree.

    It’s just that I like to occasionally read a book like that. I was in the mood and Morgenstern delivered what I needed – a diamond polished perhaps too much, but shining. The book reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it lacked the humour of Clarke’s masterpiece. My score for The Night Circus? 7.6, actually only a point more than it got from Ola 😉


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