Pros: lush world-building
Cons: characters may not be everyone's cup of tea
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard at least something about Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus. It's been touted as The Next Big Thing in virtually every newspaper, magazine, and media outlet, and both online and brick-and-mortar bookstores have been featuring the book heavily, with emails and endcaps pushing sales.
Like any ardent fan of magical realism, I downloaded the book from Barnes & Noble at midnight when it went on sale (only because B&N releases it at midnight Eastern time, while Amazon holds until the clock rolls over at midnight Pacific) and spent the entire day reading.
Does it live up to the hype?
::: The Plot :::
The Night Circus doesn't reveal its story in linear fashion, relying instead on a style that flashes forward and back again in almost Memento-like fashion to keep the reader guessing until the very end. At the beginning, we meet young Celia, who has been returned to her father, Prospero (real name Hector) who is a real-life magician of sorts masquerading as an illusionist in the late 1800's. Her mother has committed suicide, and Celia is now in the care of her father, who makes his money by showing off his natural talents, disguised as smoke and mirrors.
It's shortly revealed that Prospero has an opponent: Alexander. The two have been engaged in an ongoing battle for an unspecified amount of time in which they pit opponents against each other. Prospero's opponent is to be Celia, and Alexander finds his own in the orphan Marco. The two are trained, but not enlightened about the challenge, only that there will be an opponent and winning is everything.
The mysterious public venue chosen by the two is the circus, designed by the rich and eccentric Chandresh and an assembled group originating at one of his infamous late-night dinner parties. Marco has already insinuated himself as Chandresh's assistant, and Celia responds by following in her father's footsteps, gaining employment at the circus itself.
As the two continue with the challenge, discover each other's identities, and ramp up the complexity of the competition, they fall in love. But it can only continue expanding and growing before something has to give, and the nature of the challenge is to only allow one victor.
::: Well? And? :::
The Night Circus has been compared to just about everything out there, with its most frequent comparison being to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. I'm guessing that the word magic appearing in both is what has set off other reviewers, so let me settle that now: other things The Night Circus could be similarly compared to: Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, Magic Markers, and Magic Johnson. Please note that, like Harry Potter, they all contain the word Magic, and, also like Harry Potter, they have nothing else in common with The Night Circus.
This is a book written for grown-ups, not children. It's literary fiction, which means there is rich world-building -- so rich, in fact, that several times during my binge reading I put the book down to savor the words like I was plowing through a box of Belgian chocolate. It took me longer to read this 400-page novel than it did to read the final Harry Potter book at twice its length, because I wanted to take the time to experience each setting. Even a day after reading it, I can picture the scenes as if I had lived them. The description brings the circus to life, and I think most readers would be hard-pressed to not feel like one of the book's ardent circus fans, called reveurs.
Still, this is a debut novel, and as such, Morgenstern leaves room to grow. I read many of the pre-release reviews, and some readers had commented on a certain lack of connection with the characters. The book is written in third-person present, and it creates a buffer between the reader and the characters, much as the magic leaves a buffer between the patrons and the circus itself. We watch Celia and Marco's love story from afar as we watch the circus from afar: in love with it, but not part of it. It's possible it leaves the reader with a sense of detachment about how the contest will resolve, but that may be the very point in the end.
Still, I can't wait to see what Morgenstern's second act will be. If this is her debut, I have no doubt she's going to have an amazing career.