In this mesmerizing debut, a competition between two magicians becomes a star-crossed love story.
The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.
Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway–a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in “a game,” in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.
When I finally decided to pick up and read The Night Circus after having it idling on my Kindle for God knows how long, it was thanks to the Fantasy Faction Book Club, who decided to read it as their book of choice for May. I’ve enjoyed group reads before, and I always feel guilty when I buy a book and don’t read it for ages … So this killed two birds with one stone.
And good grief, I wish I’d read it sooner.
The story goes that our protagonists, Celia and Marco, are selected as children for a mysterious ‘game’ by two older gentlemen, seemingly attempting to settle a long-running challenge between them. Celia, the daughter of a magician known as Prospero, has a remarkable gift for creating illusions. Marco has no such innate talent, but he is taught the art of creating illusions by the second gentleman, whom we know only as Mr A H-. The challenge states that both the children are bound together into the game, and must display their prowess with illusions until only one of them remains to be declared victorious. In other words, this is a test of endurance rather than skill, a very politely arranged battle to the death. The Cirque des Rêves is their staging ground and their creation, and they are tied to it as inextricably as they are bound to each other.
The problems truly begin to arise when Celia and Marco fall for one another, and when it becomes clear that everyone else connected to the circus is in danger of becoming collateral damage in this ‘game’…
First of all, this story simply blew me away with how beautifully it was written. Morgenstern has a real gift for imagery, and the world of the circus that she builds is breathtakingly vivid and fascinating. From the stark, dramatic black-and-white colour scheme overlying everything, from the circus tents to the clothes worn by those who are part of it, to the descriptions of the stunning illusions that Celia and Marco create, there isn’t a single ugly aspect anywhere.
That said, there is however a definite sinister undertone to it all that’s evident from the start. From the scenes where we see Celia’s training at the hands of her father, to the growing unease of the other circus inhabitants as they begin to realise that not all is right in their little world – the game being played here was never intended to have a safe or happy ending. Indeed, it all goes very wrong for some of them before the end. This, as much Celia and Marco’s escalating romance (with its inevitable Romeo and Juliet overtones), is why Celia begins to search for a way to free them from the bonds of the circus without destroying it.
The culmination of those efforts in the book’s final act are not quite what I’d expected, and in a way the result isn’t precisely what I’d hoped for. That said, it’s still quite a clever ending, and there is at least some sense of satisfaction in it for me. It’s harder to say more without giving spoilers, which I never like to do, but if you’ve read it yourself then maybe you know what I mean. If not … venture forth, why don’t you, and see for yourself…
I gave this book five stars in spite of my mixed feelings about the ending, because honestly, despite those mixed feelings I was swept right along by the story as a whole. From the characters, including the almost-creepily fascinating Murray twins, Poppet and Widget, to the period setting and the beautiful prose I mentioned before, not to mention the spectacular set-pieces provided by Celia’s illusionist performances and Marco’s quieter counter-efforts – if any of these aspects are ones that hit your buttons, then you may well fall in love with this book like I did. Honest to goodness, I’ve been chewing over what to write here ever since I put the book down at last, and it pretty much comes down to OMG IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL. It’s a rare thing for me to able to say that with this much enthusiasm, so well done to Ms Morgenstern. I will definitely be on the lookout for future books from her.
I’m also tempted to go out and buy a red scarf…