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Monday, September 12, 2011

Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

ARC cover.
 You open up the packaging from Doubleday Books.  There's a certain anticipation that you expect as the novel within is revealed and this one doesn't disappoint.  A black and white starburst, alternating between matte and glossy, surrounds the title which is lettered in a fire engine red.  The pop of color amidst the contrasting blacks and whites entices you in a visceral way.  Your eyes run down it as your fingers trace the edges to the inscription at the bottom.

It reads:

The Advanced Reader's Edition
Entitles the Holder to Unlimited Admission
Not for Sale
Violators Will Be Exsanguinated

You quirk an eyebrow, wondering if any reading experience could be so rewarding as to warrant the desire for "Unlimited Admission".  Your fingers slide down the right edge feeling the separation between the cover and the coarse pages beneath.  The cover lifts and you pause the image of your body paling as the blood drains from it.  You shiver and assure yourself you have no intention of selling the book.  Shrugging it off you open the book and begin the journey knowing only that you have no idea where it will take you.


I wrote the above as a bit of an homage to Erin Morgenstern's beautiful asides that begin and end her novel, The Night Circus.  Written entirely in second person these asides (also interspersed throughout the novel) take you right into the circus - experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and wonder that accompanies a visit to each tent.  In that way the novel is both a narrative and an exhibition.  No matter how the novel is classified it is a spectacular work of fantasy that transcends genre, age, and gender.  I did not want it to end, but at the same time knew that it must.  Sound a bit like a kid at the circus don't I?

The core of Night Circus is a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco.  Trained from childhood for this battle by their father and instructor respectively.  The circus, or Le Cirque des Rêves, is the stage where they will display the talents they possess in an exhibition that will ring throughout the world. But it is also a love story, and Celia and Marco despite their misgivings possess a deep, magical love that literally makes the world shake at a touch.  Bound by magic the game cannot be stopped.  True love or not the fate of the circus, and the thousands who adore it, hangs in the balance.
U.S. cover

Written from three perspectives in time, Morgenstern's novel oftentimes reads as a series of set pieces designed to dazzle the reader more than a continual narrative.  The aforementioned asides, the "present" that constitutes the meat of the plot, and the near "future" that features a young circus lover, are interwoven throughout differentiated only by a date printed in each chapter header.  If I have one complaint about the novel it is that these titles were subtly printed belying their importance.  Bringing these three lines together in the final pages cements Night Circus as more than a vehicle for lush prose and gorgeous imagery unveiling it as the fairy tale it is meant to be.

On the subject of prose Morgenstern made an interesting choice to write the novel from the present tense.  This choice, a brilliant one I might add, made me feel as though I was the narrator.  Night Circus is not a story related by some unknown omniscient entity rather I was a voyeur observing just off "screen".  Interestingly two characters in the novel also fit into this category.  While they do on occasion actively grace the pages, Hector (Celia's father) and Alexander (Marco's instructor) are functional voyeurs to the story as they watch their proteges battle in amusement.  I have no idea if there's a literary device at play here, but I found the comparison interesting.  Is Morgenstern hinting that maybe the "narrator" is an unseen magician watching all that goes on?

UK cover.
I think I want to stop here.  If I keep writing I'm going to give away parts of the novel that shouldn't be spoiled for anyone.  When a novel receives the kind of hype Night Circus has it's always difficult to live up to.  I think it's unfortunate that some have billed it as a young adult novel trying to cash in on fans of Harry Potter and Twilight.  I suspect those comparisons have largely come from the fact that Summit (producer of the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises) has already purchased the film rights. In reality the novel is far more in the mold of something from John Crowley, or Cathrynne Valente, or maybe Téa Obreht (who I've not read, but blurbs the book).  It is lyrical and atmospheric and not remotely young adult in any way I understand the classification.

Yet it is also a novel for everyone - young and old.  Readers of genre fiction, mainstream fiction, or even those who read infrequently will find themselves sucked into The Night Circus.  I seriously hope that come this time next year we're talking about how Erin Morgenstern won a major literary award or was robbed by weird voting and nominating practices.  Go read this.  Right now... well, tomorrow when it comes out.

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At September 12, 2011 at 8:03 PM , Anonymous redhead said...

great review, I love the idea of this book, it sounds delightfully dangerous. I SO want to read this!

At September 30, 2011 at 1:38 PM , Anonymous Roof Beam Reader said...

Completely spot-on, particularly what you say about the comparisons to Harry Potter. I'm hearing a lot of people describing it as an "adult" Harry Potter, but I don't think so. And it's definitely not a young adult book. In my review, I compared it (not that it needs comparison to anything, really) to a marriage between Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and the movie, The Prestige. Much more of a Magical Realism book in literary fiction style than it is a pure fantasy (which is great news!).

At September 30, 2011 at 1:40 PM , Blogger Justin said...

Indeed. It's funny - we've always had literary fantasy, but it seems like more people are taking notice now. Great news.

At October 24, 2011 at 2:34 PM , Blogger said...

You can find this book, along with a host of other recent best sellers, at!

At December 28, 2011 at 9:54 PM , Anonymous Eesti said...

This story was so beautifully told, that am certain I will be rereading it for years to come! The author excels at capturing your imagination by creating a world where everything is possible and everyday things can be magical! I have never read another book quite like it; it is uniquely wonderful!


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