Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a gorgeous, surreal piece of writing that carries its readers into a fully realized world of magic where anything is possible. The world of Morgenstern’s novel is fully original and delightful, but unfortunately the plot itself feels as thin as an illusion.
In the late Victorian era, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, two unfortunate children, a boy and a girl, are bound into a treacherous, lifelong game of magic. Their caretakers are two magicians who have been battling each other for many, many years. Without apparent regard for their charges, they have pitted the boy and girl against each other in a contest without telling them the rules, the stakes, or the identity of their opponents.
The stage for their magical duel is a travelling circus, and as the children grow into adults and begin their challenge, they become entwined with the circus until it is, in a very literal sense, a part of them, and they are a part of it. Their strange bond with each other develops beyond the intended contest and into a romance that is destined to destroy them and the circus they’ve come to love.
I genuinely enjoyed reading The Night Circus. It is a beautiful experience–each scene feels like a magical surrealist painting offered up for my viewing pleasure. The individual circus tents and their respective displays are particularly alluring and creative. Reading the book felt like dipping in and out of a delicious, magical, steam-punk dream.
However, I couldn’t love the book, because the story itself just wasn’t enough for me. It felt as if Morgenstern came up with a brilliant idea for a story setting, and struggled in vain to work up a story to put in it. It doesn’t carry its own weight.
The novel’s characters aren’t fully fleshed out, for one thing. The two protagonists–magicians Marco and Celia–were especially pale and thin characters. I never got a feel for who they really were outside of their magic, their bond to the game, and their ill-fated love. The love story, although sweet, wasn’t terribly original either.
I find that a struggling story can be redeemed in the end if the “big moment” or the final reveal packs a powerful enough punch to bring everything to a stunning resolution. Sadly, the ending of The Night Circus was merely passable. I never felt like the necessity of the magical duel was convincing (Why did it have to take place at all? What did it prove? Why did the stakes have to be so high? Why did the children go along with it?), the love story’s conclusion took an easy out, and there was no great lesson or catharsis from it all.
All of that being said, I have to reiterate: I did enjoy the experience of reading the book. If you’re like me, and you require a story of substance peopled with fully realized characters, I might suggest taking a pass on this book, despite all the buzz about it. But for my readers who love magic and fantasy worlds, who love to fall into a waking dream (dreams, after all, don’t have to have strong plot lines), and who crave delicious descriptions of ingenious settings, this book is for you.