“People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” -Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
I read The Night Circus as part of a community reading project, sponsored by my local library. It’s an enchanting story about two orphaned magicians who are trained since infancy to compete with each other, in a magical competition shrouded in mystery centering around an enchanted circus. The two lovers, upon finding out that they are competitors, promptly fall in love. I enjoyed the hell out of it upon my first reading, but when it came time to sit down and right this review, I was totally stumped. I knew I had enjoyed it, but I couldn’t quite remember why. Much like the illusive circus that the story centers around, the pleasure of reading it had been with me in the moment, but when asked just what exactly was so great about it, I couldn’t come up with a good answer.
The answer came to me after watching a talk by the author herself, Erin Morgenstern. Morgenstern is ridiculously charming, full of self-deprecating tales of her own writing foibles. Her story of writing The Night Circus was particularly endearing; it started as an image from an entirely different story, and the image itself became so entrancing that she based a book around it. Her first draft had, as she explained, “absolutely no plot.” It was 100% florid description of the circus’ many enchantments, with zero character stories behind it. The protagonist, Celia, did not exist in her first draft of the novel. Luckily, several agents took it upon themselves to explain this to her, and agreed to take a look at the work as it progressed. Eventually, one of them signed her, and after a round or two of edits, and it sold in a week.
After the event, I purchased the book and started re-reading it for this review. And here’s the thing – it could have used a few more rounds of edits. The descriptions of the circus are indeed enchanting, as indeed are many of the characters themselves. But despite a perfect framing device: a magical circus, star-crossed lovers, and a diabolical secret – there’s not much holding it together. The magic is inconsistent, and is never sufficiently explained to readers (a death knell in fantasy, as far as I’m concerned). Celia and Marco are charming, but neither of them have enough emotional backstory to make us fully invest in their love story. The antagonists were two of the most interesting characters, but not nearly enough time is spent clarifying their characters and motivations. There’s a side character named Bailey who I think was supposed to be important, but I’m not sure why. And despite the grand nature of the central conceit of the book – two magicians, completely unaware of each other’s role in their life-and-death competition – the stakes never seemed anything but low. Indeed, these low stakes are born out in the book’s ending, which shys away from tragedy at the last minute.
So why did I enjoy reading it? Two reasons: first, the description. Morgenstern knows how to write fantasy, giving just enough description to pique the imagination, but not so much too stifle it. Her descriptions are velvet and lovely, and leave just enough of a gap for the reader to fill in with images from their own consciousness.
And the second? Well, upon further thought, it turns out that the main reason I liked The Night Circus is because I expected to. It was a book with a beguiling magical premise and a popular audience I identified with (namely, frequenters of independent bookstores who also very much enjoy Harry Potter). I wanted for it to be good, and that desire was enough to fuel my entire first reading of the book. My mind saw what it wished to see, which was a fully-fleshed out fantasy. Sadly, that initial impression didn’t bear out with further examination. The Night Circus, as it turns out, is an enjoyable book, but not a particularly good one.
Read When: you’re in the mood to shut down your critical faculties for the night and just enjoy some really great escapist description.
Recommended For: People who dabble in fantasy, but aren’t die-hard fans. Too many holes in the magical universe for actual fantasy fans.
Listen With: Low-stakes opera. Puccini, Offenbach. Stay the hell away from Wagner.