Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Evening all!

Having spent a freezing Easter Monday out of the books and at work (giving tours around the gothic fantasy that is Knebworth House), I thought I would use the evening to offer up a review of one of my most recent reads.

I picked up The Night Circus about a year ago and resigned it to one of the growing stacks of books that rest against the wall of my living room. It remained there, sidelined, until a rainy afternoon prompted me to demolish the stacks in search of something new to read. With its black-edged pages and monochrome cover, The Night Circus oozes mystery and magic. While I’m not typically driven by the superficial (unless Colin Firth happens to be somehow involved), the attractiveness of Erin Morgenstern’s offering meant that this particular book search proved unusually effortless.

The Night Circus tells the story of Le Cirque des Rêves, a travelling circus of black and white that opens at sunset. Shrouded in mystery and containing seemingly impossible marvels, the Circus becomes a source of global fascination, inspiring particular devotion from its followers, the Rêveurs. Yet the reality of this fantastical spectacle is one of destructive competition, in which the Circus serves as an arena for two sorcerers to test the powers of their chosen apprentices. The two young competitors – the Circus illusionist Celia Bowen and magician Marco Alisdair – are forced to engage in a deadly contest for control of the Circus, through the creation of increasingly elaborate wonders and illusions. Adding an acutely painful dimension to the plot, Celia and Marco find themselves falling in love and are forced to make a choice – a choice between fighting the battle that has given meaning to their lives or pursuing a future together that puts the Circus’s very existence in jeopardy.

The plot of this novel is undoubtedly complex but Morgenstern executes it with skill. Transporting you to a world of childlike wonder, in which imagination is given expression in circus tents, you cannot help but feel that you are reading through a fairy tale. This is, however, a fairy tale of epic proportions. It is a story of competition, love, and the intertwining of magic and reality. While not easy to read in the traditional sense, the reader is driven by a developing passion for the Circus and an investment in its future. You will find yourself feeling that your own fate is tied to that of Celia and Marco. Put simply, you would be hard pressed not to leave this book a Rêveur. The Night Circus is simultaneously elegant, fantastic, and terrifying. But what I loved most about the book was the way in which it captures the very spirit of story-telling, transporting you to a world both completely foreign and totally familiar.

Morgenstern’s purpose in penning this story is, I think, best summarised by the enigmatic sorcerer Mr. A. H.

“Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul and becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words,” (p.381).

While I don’t see myself running off to join the circus any time soon, this tale certainly moved me. It is one for the dreamers, the nostalgics, and those who understand that magic means a little more than a wand and top hat.

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