This book has been reviewed ad infinitum around these parts, so I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to add to the conversation. It is largely worth all the hype, although I guess I will say that I expected and wanted a little bit more from it. Still, a very worthwhile read if you like truly creative and imaginative fiction.
Celia Bowen is the daughter to the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter, and heir to his (very real) magical powers. At a young age, her father binds her to a mysterious competition with a shadowy counterpart. Essentially, she and her opponent will be representing two different schools of magical thought and practice. She joins the fantastical Cirque des Reves (Circus of Dreams) as their illusionist, and the games truly begin.
Let’s just call that the most vague synopsis ever and move on, ok? It would be really difficult to add much more to it without giving a lot away, and frankly, I am not up to the challenge of boiling the creative imagery of this book down to a few sentences. That is the selling feature here: the world (ok, mainly the circus) that Morgenstern has dreamed up is stunningly gorgeous. Within a few chapters, you will want to go to this circus, truly. It’s like a supremely ornate and exquisitely decorated pastry: all spun sugar and delicate detail. Every square inch of the place is wrought with loving craftsmanship, and nothing has been left out. It’s an amazing place, punctuated by amazing performances and a truly superior imagination.
Like a pastry, the Cirque des Reves is beautiful to look at, and delicious for a little while, but it’s ultimately hollow and unfulfilling. As impressive as the circus itself is, the characters and the plot are considerably less so. The characters we encounter, aside from Celia, are all drawn in fairly shallow strokes, with very little in the way of purpose or motivation. Celia’s opponent in the magical game, Marco, has hardly any personality to speak of; I will acknowledge that some part of that is integral to the character, but it doesn’t do much to make him a sympathetic figure. The supporting cast are essentially human extensions of the circus: curiosities left largely unexplained. The main story is actually a love story, but without fully realized characters it’s somewhat difficult to fully invest in the idea, and I found it hard to understand how or why the two individuals in question were, in fact, in love with one another. A secondary plot line, involving a young man named Bailey whose future becomes entwined with that of the Circus, fares a little better in that Bailey himself is a standard trope: a dreamer who wishes to escape his mundane line for a life of excitement. Obviously, the Circus itself can fulfill his fantasies, but in the final tally, exactly how it is supposed to do that is left rather vague.
I really, really wanted to like this book. I didn’t dislike it, exactly, but again, it was like eating something super-tasty but not all that filling. It left me wanting more. It seems to me that if Morgenstern had dialed back on descriptions of the circus (an entire chapter to describe a clock, really?) and put a little bit more of herself into her characters, the end result would be worth twice of what it actually is. She clearly has a great deal of talent, but in the case of The Night Circus, I don’t think that talented was focused in the right directions. There are a lot of great ideas, and sketches for great characters here, but ultimately, more time was spent on the trimmings and trappings, and less on the meat of the thing. Delightful if you have a sweet tooth, but less so if you’re looking for sustenance, I’m afraid.