We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep. – Prospero, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I
The Night Circus is the kind of book that I can pick up any time for some well-crafted magical escape, but also put down any time.
What I loved about it is the darkly sweet and mesmerizing fantasy world-building, as well as its prose which literally shimmers and drips off the pages like actual magic. However, like all magical things, it had a few problems.
I was absolutely enchanted by the fantasy world that Erin Morgenstern builds: It is set in the intersection of the 19th and 20th Century. The world is full of magic: magicians, contortionists, acrobats, psychics… and they are all assembled to form a spell-binding circus- Le Cirque des Rêves. The circus only opens during night time, and part of its intrigue is its mystery: its black-and-white striped tents travel from place to place without any announcement to the public, and people are crazy for it.
However, what people don’t know is that the circus is actually the venue for a competition. A competition of real magic, between two “illusionists”, Marco and Celia. They are bound to this competition since childhood by their mentors, Hector Bowen and the mysterious Mr A. H-. Both of them are masters of magic themselves. Unfortunately (and quite fortunately), Marco and Celia are bound to each other in another way- they are in love.
Maybe this sounds like another cheesy love story framed in a fantasy setting, but The Night Circus is certainly more than that. It is one of the books with most glamour and pizazz that I have ever read. The author does such a fabulous job of world-building: a bonfire that changes colour, special circus treats and a midnight banquet that are only black and white, a tent with bottles of scents that tell stories. It is hard to find infuse a book with both elegance and suspense. A book could be raw and beautiful, or ornate and classy, but The Night Circus keeps its dramatic flame contained, like a top-notch magician.
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… You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose.
At first, when the different characters were being introduced, and the multiple plot lines unfolded, I was a bit overwhelmed. Each chapter also has a date, so I had to get used to jumping back and forth along the time line. However, the bedazzling prose kept me going, and I actually loved putting the puzzle pieces together.
One thing I did not like about this book is that in the last portion of the book, the story went in a disappointing direction. As all clues were coming together, I did not have an “ah-ha” moment. The last quarter was actually less riveting to read than when I was first being introduced to the story.
I think that is also partly due to the lack of character development. Marco and Celia did not change much, and while at first, it was exciting to see them being portrayed as mysterious, tactful and intelligent, after a while it felt like they talked like unrealistic movie characters.
It was also hard to locate the book’s common theme and message. The main conflicts are fuelled by controlling parents and elders, but the author doesn’t really explore or even address this in any way. The book ended quite like The Hunger Games, and while The Hunger Games had a whole trilogy to answer its Dystopia question, The Night Circus leaves us wondering: What is it trying to say?