Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I'm not much of a reader of the magical and fantastical (well, aside from Harry Potter). It just doesn't usually strike me as all that appealing when I am browsing through book descriptions. I tend to hew more toward the realistic (well, aside from romances) although I occasionally dip a toe into the fantasy world--usually when forced. When my book club chose Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, I wasn't overly thrilled. A book about two magicians in a high stakes duel and competing in a circus atmosphere didn't really seem like my kind of book. But it was the group's choice and it had been getting raves for the past year so I tried to go into it with an open mind. And while it was well written and imaginative, it has not changed my over all perception of fantastical fiction.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I had a similar reaction (and I do read a lot of fantasy). I felt it was showing off too much for me to immerse myself in it, and often at the cost of characterization and plot. On the other hand, I handed it to Alexander and he LOVED it. So maybe we are just old and jaded.


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