Books Magazine

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

By Bluestalking @Bluestalking




Trying to describe Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is nearly as difficult as the process of writing a novel in itself. So many twists and turns, so many delights! It's breathtakingly original, such a kaleidoscopic feast for the senses it's hard condensing it outside of context or without giving too much away. There are so many characters crucial to the development of the story, so much to know about the background. I don't feel I can do it full justice but I'll certainly try.



The main story is this: Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are two innocent and gifted children caught in a sinister web spun by two magician/performers, pitted against each other in an elaborate "contest" that's really more a vicious feud between the two men - Hector Bowen, Celia's estranged father; and Mr. Alexander H. (the man in the gray suit), an enigmatic man of indeterminate morality who adopted promising young Marco from an orphanage so that he could compete against Celia. 


"You would agree to wager your own child?"

"She won't lose," Hector says. "I suggest you find a student you can tolerate parting with, if you do not already have one to spare."

"I assume her mother has no opinion on the matter?"

"You assume correctly."


"I understand your confidence in her ability, though I encourage you to at least consider the possibility that she could be lost, should the competition not play out in her favor..."

"That is a risk I am willing to take," Hector says without even glancing at his daughter..."


The two men have engaged Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, a theatrical producer each believes can be neutral, to create a venue - in this case a circus - in which Celia and Marco will compete, pitting their magic/supernatural gifts against one another, until one of the mens' charges can be declared winner. Chandresh, in turn, hires on a group of talented people he feels are capable of helping, designing and creating this singular new entity from the ground up. Each brings a certain specialty to the project, forced to swear they will never reveal their participation, or the nature of their work, to anyone outside the group.


"(...) More than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that. Nothing commonplace. This will be different, this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment..."


Celia and Marco are unwilling participants, each intimidated into obeying his/her authority figure, Celia most cruely by a sadistic father who thinks nothing of slashing her fingers, or breaking her wrist, so she may learn how to heal them by virtue of her growing powers.

For years they train, Celia through traveling with her magician father, learning his "tricks;" Marco by being nearly held captive in an apartment in London, given an unending supply of books he is to study and a daily one-hour lecture, largely teaching himself the arts he will require in order to compete with Celia. Neither child knows who his/her opponent is, nor are they given instructions on precisely how to compete, what constitutes winning and how either will know - during the process - how s/he is measuring up against the competition.

Once the circus is ready to premiere, it soon establishes itself as a wildly popular, mysterious curiosity that pops up in the middle of the night in a different random location every few days. No one hears or sees it appear or leave. Heightening the mystery is the fact it opens at dark and closes at sunrise, staying open through the wee  hours as spectators, almost hypnotized, wander from attraction to attraction, a seemingly endless array of tents containing performers each more astounding than the last, in the center of which burns a fire of pure white.

During one visit it attracts the rapt attention of a young boy named Bailey, completely mystified by the second visit of the circus to a field near his home:


"It materialized in the same spot then, and now it looks like it never left. As though it were merely invisible for the five-year period when the field sat empty.


Drawn as if by an irresistible force, Bailey cannot resist its pull: 


"It was like nothing he had ever seen. The lights, the costumes, it was all so different. As though he had escaped his everyday life and wandered into another world."


The design of the circus is completely white/grey/silverish and black, from the tents to the outfits worn by its employees. It is staffed by mysterious, magical and utterly appealing performers fascinating to the throngs who crowd the grounds. People are enthralled, so much so a fan club pops up, dedicated individuals working together to figure out the next location of the circus - which could be anywhere in the world - then striving to get there, like a bunch of addicted groupies. They also dress in black and silver with a scarlet accessory - usually a scarf - to identify themselves:


"They seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell of how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under the curtain of stars.


When they depart, they shake hands and embrace like old friends, even if they have only just met, and as they go their separate ways they feel less alone than before."


I wish I had time to describe to you all the brilliant characters but that's something I believe you need to discover on your own. It would be spoiling aspects of the book that need to be slowly unwound, as you meet them then get to know them better as the book progresses. And there are deaths; painful deaths. Likewise, the myriad plot lines that intersect. They should not be told ahead of time.

The only thing I feel okay telling you, which seems to be in most reviews, anyway, is Marco and Celia discover one another, they learn they're the rivals as their true situation becomes more and more evident. They fall in love, which seems inevitable, and shapes the rest of the book as the dark truth of what's really going on is revealed to them:


"I don't want to win," Marco says. "I want you. Truly, Celia, do you not understand that?"


She only looks at him with tear-soaked eyes, the first time she has held his gaze steadily.

"This is when I knew I loved you," he says.

They stand on opposite sides of a small, round room painted a rich blue and domed with stars, on a ledge around a pool of jewel-toned cushions. A shimmering chandelier hangs above him.


As he kisses her, the bonfire grows brighter. The acrobats catch the light perfectly as they spin. The entire circus sparkles, dazzling every patron."


I can't recall ever reading such a magical tale before, one appealing to both adults and crossing over to young adults. As the teenaged girl standing in the signing line behind me expressed it, "You don't read this book, you experience it."

There's no more eloquent way I can phrase it than that.


"Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict."


There are many kinds of magic, after all."




Thank you to the Amazon Vine Program for providing my review copy of this book.


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