Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus mines its source material pretty heavily, stealing the circus idea itself from Ray Bradbury’s seminal book Something Wicked This Way Comes (#29 on the Klaw 100) while also borrowing from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (#17) and relying on the hackneyed chosen-ones motif found in far too much fantasy and science fiction, including, of course, the Harry Potter series. Morgenstern layers her own imagination on top of these familiar settings, crafting an immersive scene rich with color and detail, but the main storyline never lives up to the standard set by the novel’s background details.
The circus of the title appears only at night, without warning, moving from town to town as if by magic (or actually by magic), creating a furor wherever it goes and leading some fans to follow the circus around the globe like red-scarved Deadheads. The circus itself is just the stage for a battle between two magicians who are themselves pawns of their mentors – a girl trained from age five by her father, a boy adopted near the same age by a rival – in a fight to which they are bound by a magic tie that is never explained. As you might imagine, the two opponents eventually fall in love, an attraction forbidden by the rules of the game they’re unwillingly playing, and one that leads to unfortunate consequences for the other pawns, real people who work in or around the mysterious circus.
Romeo here is Marco, a young boy adopted from an orphanage by the mage Alexander, who takes him in specifically to raise him for this challenge, which may last for years and promises no other purpose for the contestants’ lives. His Juliet is Celia, taken in by her father, Prospero the Enchanter, after her mother commits suicide; Prospero, having no apparent emotional attachment to his daughter, sees in her the gift of magical ability and pledges her for the next challenge with Alexander, a game the two have apparently been playing for centuries. His lack of empathy for his own daughter receives no explanation, nor do we learn about Alexander’s motives – this is merely an academic or philosophical fight over the nature of magic. There’s a battle going on, and the two protagonists fall for each other, which seems to shock Prospero and Alexander because they’re blind to human emotions.
Where Morgenstern excels is creating the setting and background characters that exist behind Marco and Celia and their puppet masters. The precocious twins Widget and Poppet were born into the circus just as it began and grow up over the course of the book into its secret masters, learning much about its running from the inside even as the adults who populate it are largely unaware of its greater purpose – all except the contortionist Tsukiko, whose appearance comes without explanation until much later and whose understanding of the challenge exceeds that of all others. Morgenstern crafts two parallel narratives that don’t coincide in time until the end of the novel, when the battle and romance between Marco and Celia reaches its resolution and the fate of the circus lies in the hands of the twins and their new friend Bailey, one of the circus’ biggest fans.
The conclusion of that central storyline remains a question mark for me as I considered the book after finishing it. To avoid spoiling it, I’ll say that Morgenstern doesn’t do anything too obvious with the main characters, nor does she choose a complete copout where the terms of the challenge are somehow voided so everyone can live happily ever after. There are vague hints earlier in the book of how the romance/challenge will end, but not enough to make that resolution logically consistent with the rest of the novel. As a result, the conclusion sits in that gray area where it wasn’t cheap or cliched, and yet wasn’t clever enough to feel satisfying on an emotional or intellectual level.
The Night Circus does read very quickly, as Morgenstern crafts visually compelling scenes and has a deft hand with the tension dial, creating sufficient narrative greed to help me race through the book. I wish it were a more original work, and that the story lived up to the quality of the settings, instead of feeling derivative and almost unfinished for the way she wrapped up the central plot.
I’m about three books behind on reviews, so I’ll try to post at least one of these a day this week until I catch up to what I’m reading now, which is Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School.