Edge: Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erin Morgenstern studied theatre & studio art at Smith College. She is a writer and artist whose work is described as “fairy tales in one way or another.” The Night Circus is her first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, “the Circus of Dreams”, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway — a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love — a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead…

CLASSIFICATION: From a literature standpoint, The Night Circus reminded me of a cross between Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish. At times, however, The Night Circus feels more like a movie than a book, and in that regard I kept thinking of Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland) and Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch).

FORMAT/INFO: The Night Circus is 400 pages long divided over five titled Parts and chapters that are unnumbered, but titled and dated with the location included. Narration is in the third person — both limited and omniscient — via Celia Bowen, Marco Alisdair, the man in the grey suit, the Night Circus’ proprietor M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen; the Murray twins Widget & Poppet, the engineer Ethan Barris, the Burgess sisters Tara & Lainie, the fortune-teller Isobel, and the dreamer Bailey, etc. The book also features short interludes written in the second person. The Night Circus is a standalone novel.

September 13, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Night Circus via Doubleday. The UK edition will be published on September 15, 2011 via Harvill Secker.

ANALYSIS: It’s not every day that a book receives the kind of publicity that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has enjoyed. This includes a 175,000 first printing through its US publisher, foreign rights sold in over twenty countries, and a movie deal with Summit Entertainment (The Twilight Saga, RED, Astro Boy, The Hurt Locker) scored several months before publication. Then again, it’s not every day that a book like The Night Circus comes along.

Erin Morgenstern’s debut is a special novel, offering readers a magical, one-of-a-kind reading experience. An experience that may vary depending on the person. For instance, some readers might find themselves enchanted by the turn of the century setting; the novel takes place between February 1873 and January 1903 with an enigmatic circus serving as the main attraction. For others, it could be the story, a non-linear narrative that cleverly begins where the novel ends, with a competition between two magicians, a love story that challenges fate, and a dreamer faced with life-altering decisions contained in between. In some cases, the novel’s cast of charming and mysterious characters — Prospero the Enchanter and his daughter Celia Bowen; the man in the grey suit and his student Marco Alisdair; M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, proprietor of the Night Circus; the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen and the rêveurs; the Murray twins Widget & Poppet; the engineer Ethan W. Barris; the Burgess sisters Tara & Lainie; the fortune-teller Isobel; Mme. Ana Padva, a retired ballerina; the contortionist Tsukiko; the dreamer Bailey — might be the culprit. For yet others, it could be Erin Morgenstern’s accomplished writing and elegant prose:

Stories have changed my dear boy. There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story? Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act. Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with his prey.

For me, it’s the sense of wonder I felt as I was reading The Night Circus. The same kind of feeling I had when I first read Alice In Wonderland or the Arabian Nights or Harry Potter. This sense of wonder is a combination of many factors including the author’s vivid imagination; a dreamlike ambiance that exists throughout the novel; characters who are full of magic, both real and symbolic like the Murray twins born at the very same time Le Cirque des Rêves first opened; and a story comprised of several mysterious subplots: the purpose of the contest, the relationship between the man in the grey suit and Hector Bowen, the bond between the Night Circus and its performers, how Bailey and the rêveurs fit in the picture, etc. Of course, of all the wonderful things that Erin Morgenstern manages to include in her novel — Midnight Dinners, a ship made of books sailing upon an ocean of ink — nothing is more captivating than the circus itself. With its black-and-white theme and astounding attractions — the Carousel, the Wishing Tree, the Labyrinth, the Stargazer, the Cloud Maze, Bedtime Stories, the Drawing Room, the Menagerie, the Ice Garden, the Hall of Mirrors, the Pool of Tears — the Night Circus is truly a “feast for the senses”:

More than a carnival. More than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that. Nothing commonplace. This will be different, this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theatre, an immersive entertainment. We will destroy the presumptions and preconceived notions of what a circus is and make it something else entirely, something new.

What it needs is style, panache. Ingenuity in its engineering and structure. To be infused with the mesmerizing, and perhaps a touch of mystery. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.

As amazing as The Night Circus is, especially for a debut, Erin Morgenstern’s novel is not perfect. For starters, characters lack depth and are unsympathetic because of the large cast and an omniscient/limited third-person narrative that prevents readers from becoming intimate with the novel’s characters. As a result, it’s hard to feel anything except indifference when a character dies, falls in love or is asked to make a difficult choice. At the same time, the story drags in certain places, while the novel’s climax and conclusion can feel a bit underwhelming.

Apart from these issues with the characterization and story, I have nothing but praise for Erin Morgenstern’s remarkable debut. Not only is The Night Circus one of the year’s best releases, ranking right up there with Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, it is a book that I highly recommend to anyone and everyone. After all, like attending an actual circus, The Night Circus is the kind of thing every person should experience at least once in their lifetime…


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ROBERT THOMPSON is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

View all posts by Robert Thompson (retired)

7 comments

  1. We would love to draw your attention to the unique interactive story we’ve created to accompany The Night Circus. Visit http://www.nightcircus.co.uk to get a fascinating glimpse of the circus’s secrets.

  2. The Night Circus is Powell’s Indiespensable shipment this month. I’m looking forward to reading it, even more so now that I’ve read your review.

  3. Thanks for the link Echo Bazaar! I just checked out the website. It’s a very nice complement to the book :D

    Terry, The Night Circus is one of those novels that should be read sooner than later…

  4. Sounds great! I saw that it’s out on audio, too, read by Jim Dale who did the Harry Potter books. I will try it!

  5. I hope you enjoy the book Kat :) I think it will work well as an audio book, but personally I’m already waiting for the movie!

  6. Ohh, Jim Dale. I heart that guy!

  7. This is another one of those really hyped up cross-genre books. I’m glad this one worked out because the last one I read (Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches) didn’t.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. Fantasy Literature's Fantasy Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] I abandoned it for a birthday book (Robert, thanks for the recommendation!) Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. What a gift; mystery, …
  3. Fantasy Literature's Fantasy Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] This week I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a book that I mostly thoroughly enjoyed, especially if I didn’t …

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