Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I first heard of The Night Circus because of NaNoWriMo, and immediately added it to my TBR list for two reasons: 1) it sounded cool, and 2) it was originally a NaNo novel, and I feel a solemn duty to support those whose November scribblings got published.

Synopsis courtesy Goodreads:

the-night-circusThe 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 both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

I liked Celia and Marco, for the most part, but their romance wasn’t as large a part of the story as I expected (or okay, hoped—I like romance!). Since Marco was required to stay in London while the circus traveled all over the world, he and Celia were separated for great swaths of the story. We see their relationship build from the different tents and areas they add to the circus, in addition to the few times they actually see each other.

By and large the book is about the mysteries of the circus, the mysteries of Celia’s and Marco’s teachers, and their competition. From the moment the story begins, Morgenstern gradually brings everything she needs, weaving together all the pieces that will come into play by the end of it.

The key word there, though, is “gradual.” The beginning of the book moves very slowly as we go through both Celia’s and Marco’s childhoods before the competition actually begins, and then occasionally jumping forward in time a bit to tell the story of Bailey, a young boy very intrigued by the circus. Because of this, the early sections of the book drag at times. However, about a third to halfway through the novel, the story hit its stride.

The language is absolutely beautiful, and probably the strongest part of the novel. The descriptions are so lush it feels as though you’ve been transported to the circus, and reading Morgenstern’s writing was a large part of what kept me going when the story itself was dragging.

Viewpoints swap between third-person present tense, telling the story of the competition between Celia and Marco and the circus’s inception, and then second person. This is one of the few stories I’ve read that does second person well, and that’s for two reasons.

One, it’s speaking as if you, the reader, are a visitor to the circus, which works very well within the story. And two, it doesn’t happen often. The second person sections aren’t very long, providing just a bit of a frame and some foreshadowing to the unfolding story. (This is good, because after If on a winter’s night a traveler, I’ve developed a twitch regarding stories in second person.)

Overall, I really enjoyed The Night Circus, I think in part because it felt like reading a fantasy disguised as a literary novel (or perhaps vice versa). It’s not on a “holy cow, you have to read this now” recommendation level for me, but it’s a lovely, beautifully written story.