I’ve seen this book around so many times and never been really tempted to pick it up — because apparently I somehow missed hearing anything of what it was actually about. When I finally did decide to read it, I was enthralled. I hadn’t realized it was a fantasy (it always surprises me when books with fantasy or sci-fi elements become big mainstream bestsellers, although it shouldn’t). The book it reminds me most of is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that, like that book, it’s set in the past (late 19th and early-20th century, in this case), but in a past where magic is real. Magicians, in this story, can perform real acts of magic (and people can be trained to use magic), but they have to hide their skills in plain sight by pretending to be mere illusionists. This makes a travelling circus the perfect venue for a lifelong battle of skill between two magicians — that also happens to be a love story.
When I say it’s like Jonathan Strange, I don’t mean that it shares that book’s impressive heft, sprawling scope and ironic footnotes. The Night Circus is a more contained, restrained story, told with economy of language and focusing on a few sharply defined characters whose lives, over a period of several years, intersect against the backdrop of the most amazing circus imaginable (and I’m not even a big fan of circuses). Imagine a Cirque de Soleil, but with magic, travelling mysteriously from place to place, arriving without warning, and opening only during the hours between sunset and sunrise. The circus has a dreamlike quality yet every detail of the book is clear, sharp, precise and delicious. The two magicians, Celia and Marco, have been bound from childhood to compete in this magical test of strength and skill — Celia committed to the game by her father, Marcus by his mentor, both powerful magicians. If they want to escape and be free to live their own lives, that’s too bad — they are the victims of the game as much as its players. The other characters, including the other circus performers, are as vividly imagined as the two principals, and the whole story is an utter delight.
I’ve read some reviews by people who really hated this book: mostly they seemed to loathe the slow pace at which the story unfolds. I guess there are also, as people pointed out, some plot elements that fall apart if you analyze them under too harsh a logic-lamp, but it’s a testament to Morgenstern’s storytelling abilities (for my tastes, anyway) that I felt no need to do that. Yes, the story takes years to unfold, I was turning pages very quickly at the end, avid to find out how the seemingly unsolvable dilemma would be resolved — and completely satisfied with the result.
A magical book, in more ways than one.