When a famous magician, Prospero the Great, meets his young daughter for the first time and sees that she has inherited his own real and true magical ability, he proposes a duel with his former teacher, pitting a protégé of each against the other in an attempt to show which method of magical teaching, experiential or textually based, is more effective. The duel will only commence after a period of learning and will be at the time and place of the former teacher's choosing, but it will not be friendly; it will be a duel to the death. The venue chosen is a magical night circus where Celia and Marco will showcase their fantastical skills. Marco knows from the outset that Celia is his competition but she has no idea that he is hers.
For years the two of them make considered moves, like a slow and enticing chess game between magicians, creating marvelous and awe-inspiring displays. They may be in control of the board, but they are certainly not the only people caught up in the circus world. Twins Poppy and Widget are born the night the circus commences and each of them has supernatural gifts as a result. Isabel, the fortune teller, loves Marco and keeps an eye on Celia for him. There are numerous non-magical people behind the scenes in the planning and continuation of the circus and many performers as well. There's a young farm boy named Bailey, who is inexplicably drawn to the circus. And each of them are players on a stage they do not control or understand.
I am still deciding if I enjoyed this book or not. There is no doubt that it was well-written and that Morgenstern is very imaginative and clever. But there's not a lot of plot here, just scene after scene of the boundlessness of Celia and Marco's ingenuity, skill, and imagination. The promise of magicians dueling doesn't feel fulfilled and never manages to provide any sort of tension to the novel at all. The love story between them just sort of happens, making it feel unearned and inorganic. The cast of characters is so numerous that they cannot all be well rounded purely from space constraints. There is a gothic and menacing undertone to the entire book and it is a dreamy and lethargic, vaguely ominous and unsettling read. I knew I was going to be unhappy if Morgenstern chose the ending I suspected but one that I thought would be entirely wrong and then she did just that, wrapping things up hurriedly and too neatly for the previously decaying situation she'd created. But if I still feel ambivalent about the book, and I do, I did push myself out of my comfort zone with the read, and I can be pleased about that.