The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern
Fantastical, exciting and fittingly enchanting, Erin Morgenstern's much-talked-about debut The Night Circus isn't great literature - but it IS, without a doubt, very good fun. The plot is difficult to summarise briefly, as it involves numerous different strands, but in the main it revolves around the rivalry between two great 19th-century magicians - Prospero the Enchanter and 'the man in the grey suit', also known as 'Mr A. H–', whose name eludes both pronunciation and memory. Both men vow to train apprentices who will be schooled in magic and ultimately pitted against each other in a long-running challenge which will dominate their lives. Prospero chooses his daughter, Celia; the nameless man chooses a nameless, orphaned boy, who eventually decides to call himself Marco. When the two are teenagers, their battleground, a mysterious and magical travelling circus which only opens at night, is chosen. But of course, there has to be a hitch, and in this case it's that Celia and Marco begin to fall in love with one another as soon as they meet.
There are similarities between this book and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, one of my all-time favourites, and while The Night Circus is nowhere near as cerebral, it has a similar genuinely magical quality. The use of magic is integral to almost everything that happens, yet it's presented in a completely believable manner. The story is told mainly in short, snappy chapters which constantly switch between times and places. In addition to the main plotline, there's the story of the formation of the circus itself; the tale of Bailey, who, after being dared to enter the circus as a child, develops an enduring obsession with it and with a girl who is part of the troupe of performers; and the story of Herr Thiessen, who creates a magical clock for the circus, and goes on to become the leader of the 'Rêveurs', a kind of night circus fanclub. Meanwhile, the large and varied group of performers and artists involved in creating the circus become drawn in to the feud between Prospero and the nameless man - even after Prospero's apparent death. There's more besides, and almost too many main characters to mention; this is a rich, varied narrative which touches on a number of lives, rather than confining itself solely to a tale of magic or a love story.
With all the hype around this book, it's almost impossible to read it without imagining that it was written, or at least published, with an eventual film adaptation in mind. With endless wondrous sights around the circus and all the incredible magical feats performed by the characters, it would certainly make for a real visual spectacle, and the romance at the book's heart is bound to be a big draw for many. When I first started hearing about this book, there were some comparisons to Twilight, which I'm relieved to say are inaccurate - I'm not actually sure where anyone got the idea that the two are similar. Harry Potter fans, meanwhile, will probably appreciate the 'Power Trio' dynamic between the older Bailey, Poppet and Widget, as well as the more obvious elements of magic. I was pleased to find that the romance doesn't dominate the story anywhere near as much as I expected; a few of the scenes between Celia and Marco are a little corny, but nothing inexcusable.
Overall, it's well-written; although personally I would have preferred a little more detail and longer chapters without so much jumping around, there's something quite beautiful, and certainly very inventive, about the way Morgenstern describes breathtaking demonstrations of magic with minimal prose. (On the other hand, the style handily side-steps any need to explain how this magic works or even where it came from.) Oddly, the word 'likely' is used in place of 'probably' with irritating frequency, but nothing else about the writing struck me as anything less than accomplished. The author's skill lies mainly in world-building, and you often get the feeling she lacks confidence in her characters, creating beautiful settings for them to interact in rather than fleshing them out. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; as imaginary worlds go, the altered reality of The Night Circus is a charming, seductive one.
This is an indulgent, escapist book - it's not wildly adventurous, dramatic, or particularly meaningful, and some may find it dull due to the lack of action. It's a story you could curl up with and lose yourself in, and though I never quite got to the point where I couldn't tear myself away from it, I did feel rather sad when it was all over. I think the characters are too lightly drawn to inspire real devotion from the reader, but the world surrounding them is skilfully created an astonishingly effective. It's the sights and sounds of the circus's myriad tents that have stuck in my head even as the characters have begun to fade. Perhaps the hype surrounding this book has been a little over-zealous; it's not perfect, and I can't imagine enough readers falling in love with the characters for it to become a real phenomenon. But it's a solid debut, and the carefully detailed world it conjures up has ensured my interest in Morgenstern's future work.