It all started with a contest of magic. Two masters agree to pit their students against each other in a contest to determine whose technique is superior- and the venue is Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams).
The circus arrives without fanfare: an empty field suddenly dotted with tents of white, black and grey. The acrobats perform without nets and the carousel runs an impossible route of twists and turns. There's a wishing tree that may grant real wishes and The Pool of Tears that carries away all your worries. The wonders of the circus are amplified by the magicians who use real magic in a contest to see who can create the grandest exhibition.
But for Marco and Celia the undefined rules of the contest and the years spent magically sheltering the circus are taking a toll. The need to compete is waning in the face of their growing love for each other and all they really want is for the contest to end. But the rules of the contest are not bent so easily and the fate of the circus becomes more tenuous as the participants become more unhinged from reality.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a dreamy fantasy full of gorgeous prose. The narrative jumps around with an indistinct sense of time as the story weaves into increasing complexity. The list of characters starts with only the master magicians and their students, but grows to include members of the circus and the people who were behind its creation. The strength of the book lies in Morgenstern's gift for description. The spectacle of the circus is deftly illustrated and you can almost feel the lush fabrics of Celia's dresses and hear the tick of the great transforming Wunschtraum clock that sits at the entrance of the circus.
However most of the energy of Morgenstern's writing goes into the descriptive parts of the book and the pacing does get bogged down periodically. Most of the whimsical elements work but the quirk of having the narrative jump around in time- back and forth in spurts of a year or two or ten- isn't one that really gelled with me and didn't seem necessary to the story. I also felt that the intensity of the love story would have been better served if Celia and Marco had had a real competition throughout rather than the fairly tepid attempts to add on to each other's displays at the circus. The magical elements are thinly defined, though not entirely lacking in description. If one is looking for a fully fleshed-out magical system they will be disappointed. But the illusions themselves are vividly drawn and Morgenstern has a real knack for evoking the feeling of really being in a dream circus- one that I wish I could visit myself.
"The Night Circus" isn't a hugely angst-ridden book. Bad things happen, but not in a graphic way. The characterizations are somewhat uneven and I found myself only occasionally affected by the fate of certain characters-- largely based on how much time we had been allowed to spend with them. Only a few had what I felt were sufficient ticks to make them seem like real people. Everyone is beautifully described on a physical level, but the personalities are not always as distinct. Most of the characters were likable, and that's actually a flaw when I should have felt more antipathy toward certain people.
Whether or not one enjoys "The Night Circus" will likely have a lot to do with whether or not the reader prefers a story that enjoys a romantic dreaminess, as this one does, or if they're looking to read something with more bite. If you're like me and don't really enjoy pointed political commentary or casual sexual titillation, then you might really like the measured pace and elegance of a book like "The Night Circus" since it avoids any of the easy trappings of popular fiction. Despite the few critiques I had, I really enjoyed its etherial atmosphere, beautiful prose and poignant romance. What it lacked in tension it made up for in its evocative imagination and I can still easily add this one to my list of recommendations.
4 out of 5 stars.