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The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

Erin Morgenstern’s tale of magic and illusion follows in the footsteps of many a famous opening line. For the ‘Cirque des Reves’ is no ordinary circus. Its arrival and departure is a phenomena unto itself, as are its infamous opening hours: from sunset to daybreak. The Night Circus therefore is a strange, beautiful place; a place made up of many stalls that seem to cater to the wildest hopes and dreams of each and every one of its loyal patrons, the ‘Reveurs’.

“You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus.You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.” 

However the ‘Cirque des Reves’ is far more than just a venue of wonderous entertainment. It serves a darker purpose as the enchanted battleground to a magicians duel. This unmarked chessboard binds the fate of two young students of magic who through chance or otherwise became pawns in a cruel wager in which they can never escape. Prospero and his long-time friend and rival Alexander have for centuries made a game out of pitting their students against each other. Their latest victims are no other than Celia, Prospero’s own daughter and Marco, an orphaned street urchin.

The bets are placed and the children are bound through a ritualistic ring, and so begins their gruelling instruction of the dark arts. However, the fight ahead of them is a blind fight, in which the opponent they face is unknown as well as the rules to the game. As you may imagine, the venue for the dual showcases the amazing abilities of both competitors. Complex attractions such as the ‘Pool of Tears’ and the ‘Ice Garden’ soon become not tools for fighting the opponent, but rather love tokens, as Celia and Marco eventually discover each other and slowly fall in love. Much to the chagrin of their Prospero and Alexander, the circus changes from a battleground to a star-crossed ode to love.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, ‘The Night Circus’ is a heady clash between late Victorian Romanticism and the opposing ideals of the Enlightenment. It is mechanics meets magic and mystery. The story itself is a delicate clockwork whose narrative feeds off a variety of opposites. The action for instance jumps from one side of the Atlantic to another, then all over the world according to the mysterious whims of the circus proprietors. The characters are also an oxymoron of sorts; as society forces real magicians to carry out their art under the guise of illusion.

“That’s the beauty of it. Have you seen the contraptions these magicians build to accomplish the most mundane feats? They are a bunch of fish covered in feathers trying to convince the public they can fly, I am simply a bird in their midst.”

I particularly enjoyed the sense of ‘battle without action’, which Morgenstern evokes with a quiet dexterity. The cast is varied and full of weird and wonderful people, all of whom have a touch of magic about them. My favourite has to be the arrogant Prospero and the exotic female Contortionist who is more than meets the eye. I also very much liked the way magic was conveyed in ‘The Night Circus’, as it is refreshingly different from the Harry Potter style of conjuring that we are all familiar with (apart from the use of a ‘Hogwart’s Express’ kind of transportation for the circus).

I must state that I do not read YA as much as I should. On the whole I think YA fiction reviews tend to be overhyped and that is unfortunately a turn off for me. However I really enjoyed ‘The Night Circus’ and glad I picked it up. I have seen a number of favourable reviews around the internet and wholeheartedly agree with them all. But this does not mean that the story was perfect, and there are parts that could have been ironed out. My small objections are as follows: The story having got off to an amazing start takes us straight into the harrowing relationship of Prospero and his poor daughter Celia. We see both young students grow up and the suffering (both physical and psychological) they both have to endure to become the best. The momentum up to this point is fantastic and I kept hoping Morgenstern could keep it up, but somewhere after circus is formed and Celia and Marco ‘discover’ each other, the story sort of starts to fall apart.

The poetic magic of Morgenstern’s storyline gives away at the seams and the direction of the novel for me was no longer clear. Now I could say that this could pass as a device that reflects the disillusionment of the main characters, but it didn’t FEEL that way. Two-thirds of the way into the novel there is a dilly-dallying that does mar the overall quality of the book, therefore my 4/5 stars. However, it did end on a strong note and the small hiccup did not put me off at all.

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held. Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.” 

For those wanting a good summer read I recommend ‘The Night Circus’ as it really is a wonderful tale with a bit of everything thrown in. It’s one of those stories that you can totally let yourself be enveloped in and not worry about a thing. It reminded me a lot of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle‘ and ‘The Prestige‘, so if you like fantasy books with duelling magician’s then this is definitely one you shouldn’t miss.

Make sure you snap up a copy in the airport lounge before boarding your plane!

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