Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Thursday, January 29th, 2015 at 11:21 am

When was the last time you read a book straight through cover to cover?

The last time I did was January 28, right after Tirzah Mae got her two month shots.

The book was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

The circus arrives unexpectedly, massive black and white tents surrounded by a black wrought iron fence in what yesterday was only a field. The placard at the gate announces that it is open at night only.

Once the circus-goer pays admission, he passes through the gates into a circus like none he’s ever seen before. Everything inside is in black and white, bright light and total darkness. The grounds dazzle every sense as the circus-goer follows interwoven circles through dozens of tents. Each tent contains its own entertainment. Some are typical fair, if more spectacular than usual – contortionists and fire dancers and cat trainers. But some of the Night Circus’s amusements are completely novel – a garden made of ice, an enchanted wishing tree, a labrynth of rooms each more mind-boggling than the last.

What the circus-goer doesn’t know is that this ephemeral entertainment, popping into and then disappearing from one site after another, is not the main attraction. The Night Circus is a venue, a stage, a stadium in which a high stakes game between two great magicians is played out.

The game started many years ago, when a student magician innovated a new philosophy of magic, a new technique for wizardry. His master challenged him that a new philosophy or a new technique is only worthwhile if it can be taught. Each magician would choose a student, would train that student in his own magic – then, when the time was right, the two students would be pit against one another to see whose magic would prevail.

It’s been years since the last match, but now at last, Prospero has found a student he feels sure will prevail against anyone Alexander could train. He invites Alexander to a show, invites him to the game, offers as his contestant his six-year-old daughter Celia. Alexander accepts, begins training his own apprentice. And when Alexander decides that the time is right, he contacts a man in London to create an acceptable venue for the competition – and he sends a two-word message to Prospero: “Your move.”

The Night Circus is undoubtedly one of the most unique and most interesting fantasies I’ve ever read. While the story is set in familiar late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century England and America, the setting is at the same time completely novel, thanks to the spectacular Night Circus and the magical premise of the story. The characters are mysterious, elusive, and absolutely fascinating. The plot is engaging and the story well-told.

That said, I doubt The Night Circus would be a hit with everyone. The story includes magic, yes, but also astrology and fortune-telling – all givens in the world of The Night Circus. A sex scene about three-quarters through rather disappointed this reader (it wasn’t terribly explicit, but enough so to make me uncomfortable.) And a jarring f-word in the first couple chapters almost made me put the book down (that was thankfully uncharacteristic for the novel – and I rather wonder why it made it past the editors, it was so out of place for the novel’s Victorian, albeit steampunk, setting.)

So I recommend this novel with serious caveats.

Rating: 3 to 4 stars
Category: Steampunk (but it transcends the genre)
Synopsis: A circus provides the setting for two magicians to pit their young students against one another in a mind-boggling sensory display of wizardry.
Recommendation: Masterfully written, fascinating premise and setting – but certain “dirty” elements make me hesitant to recommend this to all readers.

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