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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2012
So, this is a tough one. I still can't make up my mind about this book. I'm hovering between 3 and 4 stars. I don't want to give away any spoilers because it really would spoil the effect of the book for those that want to read it, so I'll give you a potted overview.

The story is about a magical competition between Celia and Marco, instigated by her father and his mentor when they were children. Celia knows very little about the competition, not even who her opponent is, while Marco knows much more. And the location for the contest is Le Cirque des Reves. They do battle by creating more and more elaborate experiences (tents) within the circus, neither knowing how the contest will be won, but knowing there can be only one winner. Of course, there is the inevitable love story that ensues, though for a large part of the book the two protagonists are kept apart.

What was wonderful about this book was Morgenstern's beautiful, often elaborate prose and intricate descriptions. The tents, and what happened within them, really came to life with her detail and atmosphere. You felt as though you were really there and these magical experiences could actually be real because of the dexterity of the author. One of my favourite things in the circus was Herr Theissen's clock. What an extraordinary imagination Morgenstern has.

However, I also feel as though this was the book's weakest point as well. Because the circus was described in every detail, from the clothes to the food at the Midnight Dinners and the smells of the circus, because the story was told from so many points of view and places in time, I found it, not difficult, but awkward to really develop any attachments to the characters. I wasn't swept away with the story, but rather with the imagery.

Perhaps this was the author's intent. The book actually felt like someone's dream, one of those rare dreams that we all occasionally have that feels so real that when we wake up we feel disappointed because it didn't actually happen. The Night Circus was less of a story and more of an experience.

If Morgenstern could shape her characters as satisfyingly as she shapes the world she puts them in, I think she could be a prodigious talent. For a debut novel I was very impressed and I will certainly be interested to see what else she writes. It's not going to be one of my favourite books but all told, I think the book deserves 4 stars for the sheer commitment and bravery Morgenstern displays in not leaving any descriptive stone unturned. Not many books are written in this fashion and I admire her for trying something unusual. How successfully she achieves it is up to you.
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231 of 244 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes a book comes along that will captivate you from the very first page and doesn't let go until you've finished reading it, for me The Night Circus was one of those books. In fact, when I reached the end I was very tempted to turn back to the first page and start reading it again. This has to be the most impressive debut I've read in a long time and I can't wait to see what Erin Morgenstern comes up with next, she has a rich imagination and a beautiful writing style that I'm sure will only improve in future books.

The story of The Night Circus begins with two magicians who both have different ideas on the best way to train an apprentice in the art of magic. They agree to a challenge and decide to pit their trainees against each other in a game that will take years to complete, a challenge that only one of them will survive. Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) becomes the setting for his duel with Celia and Marco the unwitting pawns in the game with neither of them knowing the rules or even who their opponent is. The plot meanders towards the finish line but this book is all about the journey, the circus itself is a wonderful place to spend time in and is so beautifully described that it's like you're really there. You can see the acrobats and illusionists, you'll smell and taste the popcorn and caramel, you will walk through the labyrinth, spend time in the ice garden and possibly even make a wish at the wishing tree. I don't think I've ever been so fully transported into another world.

The circus wouldn't be the same without it's fantastic cast of characters, everyone from the performers to the reveurs (people who are so captivated by the circus that they follow it from town to town) have their role to play. I have to say that I loved the twins Poppet and Widget along with their friend Bailey but most of all I enjoyed seeing Celia and Marco grow into their roles as they tried to compete with each other. The story skips backwards and forwards in time and gradually unfolds as you start to realise how everything fits together, leading up to a breathtaking finale in a book that you won't want to end.

The Night Circus is a book that I will definitely be re-reading and I know I will be recommending it again and again to friends and family. I wish I could wipe the experience of reading it from my mind just so that I could pick it up and enjoy it for the first time all over again. If you want to be transported to a different world to experience the joys of the circus as if you were a child again then I would highly recommend this story. This will definitely make my best books of 2011 list and Erin Morgenstern has become an automatic buy author for me in the future.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2015
I can see the appeal of this book for many readers. From the description and reviews, I thought it was going to be one for me. The opening chapters were intriguing, leaving you with that "Ooooh" feeling. Little hints and implied statements that "nobody knows where he comes from", "We do not know what language he speaks", "there is something unseen at its base." These are great teasers, that should draw you in to the intrigue.

However, Morgenstern uses these teasers so much, almost on every page and definitely in every short chapter, that I got fatigued by them. After a while I was thinking: "You know what, I don't care if there's a mystery in this bit, because there's a mystery in all of it, and I've got that, so thanks, you don't need to keep badgering me about it. Just get on with the bloody story."

The novel is Rococo in its design. It builds baroque trope on baroque trope until the narrative is severely impaired by what are essentially tricks. It's marvellous that Celia can turn one thing into another. I mean, actually, it is a marvel. There's magic in creation. Yup. Get all that. But after a while there is no marvel left because you've had so many marvels. It's like continuing to have sex post-orgasm. What should be a joyous event chafes. That's what happens here. The mystery is drowned in a sea of its own mystery, and nobody knows what the mystery was and where it has gone because it is a mysterious thing full of mystery. STOP IT!!! PLEASE STOP IT, ERIN, YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY!!!!

So, what makes a narrative interesting? Well, one such thing is a great character. Just one would be a start. But even the main protagonists, A. H. and Hector Bowen are sketched so slightly that one has no idea why they do what they do. A. H. is a bit of a psycho really, who brings a child up in isolation, with study only. Then Hector is a bit of a psycho, wilfully breaking his daughter's wrists to teach her lessons.

The rest of the crew become indistinguishable. Like cartoon characters. The sisters with an eye for design. The contortionist who speaks in cryptic short sentences that really don't convey anything. The impresario who throws extravagant dinner parties in London where you might expect one - at least one interesting person - to turn up.

But you don't get that. What you get instead is people who look interesting but are dead inside. They have no inner life. No sense of individuation or personality, but are clearly symbols allegories and ciphers placed there to add a bit of background colour to a narrative that simply doesn't move onwards.

One of the other problems in this book for me was the writing style. It's lush, visual and has a very slow rhythm, with elongated sentences. And that should be great, but becomes a problem. Because without a short snappy sentence from time to time to wake me up, I feel like there's something of a nerd whispering in my ear just boring me to an early grave. I have trouble breathing when I read this book, that's how visceral my response to her writing is.

So, I'm not going to say don't read this. I read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy where others threatened to slash their wrists - so I get that a book can be loved by some and hated by others. But I will say, be aware that you're not going to read a thumpingly driving narrative, or meet interesting people along the way.

What you will get is cinema. A long slow dream sequence that you may well fall into and become beguiled by, if (unlike me) you are lucky enough to get drawn on by the fairy light in the woods that leads you onwards to nothing.

Enjoy it on that level.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 27 September 2014
I had been looking forward to reading this for aaages, so whether this factored in how disappointing I found it, I don’t know.

I had to nibble away at this book, chapter by chapter.

Every time I got into a scene I got whisked away somewhere else, I was never allowed to settle, after a while this got wearying, then boring.

The premise was intriguing, the cover was enticing, the plot was there, even the writing skills and descriptions were there, but because it dotted around so much I just found myself distracted by almost anything that wasn’t the story.

You never got to hang around any of the characters long enough to connect, large sections of the story could be condensed into, “ this was added to the circus, isn’t it pretty?”

I can describe this book in one four letter word, “nice”, the characters were intriguing, but not enough to save the book, the storyline was o.k, but it could have been spectacular.

And that’s the rub, it could have been spectacular, if it had been laid out in a more linear fashion, if the author stuck to one scene for more than a few pages at a time, if we’d gotten to know the characters under the skin as well as outfits they wore and the circus they worked in.

I liked how it ended, it didn’t need a big flashy finish, but the journey to get to the end felt like a mirage, all glitz and glamour and no substance.

Perhaps if I’d read it in another time and place maybe it would be something more than it was, but I read it here and now and it simply felt flat.
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93 of 105 people found the following review helpful
"The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not."

So our story begins - the circus just appearing out of the ether as did my advance review copy of this debut novel, much to my delight. The UK edition looks stunning with black edged paper and end papers illustrated with a pattern of bowlers and top hats. This is a feast for the eyes which is perhaps not surprising as the author is an artist but will the inside match the luxurious facade?

This is an odd review for me as, amid all my oohing and ahhing, I was all too aware of how some of my bookish friends would absolutely hate this book and would be cringing from the opening pages. So, best to get that elephant out of the room before I go any further! If you don't like magical realism, if you're not a fan of meandering narratives, if you prefer action, if you don't like novels written in the present tense, if you don't like fantasy then there's nothing for you here. However, if, like me, you do like a bit of escapism, you like to slip into another world, if you enjoy visual stimulation, then step right up!

The story is perhaps the least important element of The Night Circus, that role being reserved for the circus itself but yes, there is an underlying narrative, the story of two gifted young illusionists, Celia and Marco, being pitted against each other in a lengthy battle the rules of which are vague. Le Cirque de Reves (the Circus of Dreams) is the battlefield and it soon attracts a faithful following of "reveurs" (dreamers) who follow its progress from town to town, continent to continent by means of a shadowy underground movement. There is a secondary storyline involving Bailey, a country boy who becomes linked to the circus and will have a key role in future events. There is a varied cast of weird and wonderful characters, including Celia's villainous father, Hector, his rival, Alexander, the man in the great suit as well as the supporting cast who keep the circus going. These are not characters you expect to empathise with, this is a show after all and they are there to entertain you just as the various tents house a myriad of visually stunning scenes, the Ice Garden, the Cloud Maze, the Labyrinth etc.

Some have compared The Night Circus with Audrey Niffenegger and yes, I can see slight similarities given that both authors are visual artists. Others mention Alice Hoffman and yes, I can see some elements in common but Erin Morgenstern has created a unique world with the Cirque de Reves and for those who are on the right wavelength she has provided a pathway to a singularly enchanting universe, one in which my inner child revelled. Highly recommended for all "reveurs"/dreamers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 7 November 2013
The story was imaginative - full of great ideas but the whole thing was let down by appalling writing that jarred badly with the magical atmosphere the author was attempting to create. Unlike a previous reviewer I did finish the book but felt let down. At times it felt as if I was reading bad teen fiction with flat lifeless characters. A real shame as a good writer could have made so much more of the ideas. I am surprised so many people have been so beguiled by the story but have failed to notice how bad the writing is....
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
There are some books that get tagged as YA or middle grade just because they have YA or middle grade characters. Sometimes that makes sense, but sometimes you have to tread carefully because of adult themes or other unsettling content. I'm thinking along the lines of, say, Robert Peck's "A Day No Pigs Would Die", which has a great deal of realistic, rough farming animal scenes that many parents find very unnerving.

On the other hand you get books that sort of drift into the adult category, even though they are great YA and middle grade reads. I'm thinking of Rebecca Stead's "When You Reach Me", and similar beautifully crafted books that don't have the usual YA or middle grade hook.

"Night Circus" seems to fall into this latter category. No violence or sex, but a sophisticated plot that that is reasonably easy to follow, some memorable writing, and great craftsmanship. This seems like the kind of book that a younger reader could enjoy as a literary, as opposed to adventure or fantasy, treat. Maybe I'm overstating it a bit, since some readers found the book dull or uninteresting, but I think for the right reader this book could be very engaging.

That's especially so because it does seem to fit comfortably among the creepy/cool circus books that I've particularly enjoyed. It owes a bit to Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes", but it also echoes Kate Milford's "The Boneshaker", Neal Shusterman's "Full Tilt", Jonathan Howard's "Johannes Cabal the Necromancer" and Brooke Stevens "The Circus of the Earth and the Air", all of which have a magical, gothic, or creepy atmosphere tied by great writing into a the circus metaphor.

So, not your standard fare, but well worth a look for a young reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 April 2014
I've given 2 stars purely for the depth and conscious effort made by the author to create a very certain kind of book and the concept, which is actually very intriguing. I can respect Erin Morgenstern for writing the book she wanted to write and in the way she wanted to do it. But my actual enjoyment is less than 1 stars. I hated it.

This is the plot: two rival magicians compete against each other in a game where the rules are uncertain, in the arena of a travelling night circus. Tedium ensues. That is the sum of my experience. Tedium.

First of all, it literally took me months to trawl through this. I had to force myself to finish the book because I had to believe there was something worthwhile at the end. I can tell that every decision made by Erin Morgenstern was deliberate, but unfortunately it feels like she sacrificed good story telling for stylistic choices. Awkward, drawn out dialogue with that pretentious contraction free type of language that doesn't read well. Written in first person present, which can be exciting and intense... if the story is exciting and tense, which this isn't. Inserts of pointless 2nd person descriptions of the night circus which do nothing for me. No change in pace throughout the novel. And the pace is SLOW. I felt like there was no real pay off for keeping us at such a distance the whole time. The story ends with no clear explanation about the rules of the game. Character motivations are non existent and it's very hard to feel anything towards anyone, except perhaps the clockmaker Hans who has hardly any page time and the elusive man in the grey suit (one of the mentors to the rivals). I don't mind hard work, but at the end of the day this is a story about a magical night circus and two rival magicians. There is a very clear missing element of whimsicality and fun. It all takes itself too seriously and assumes we should care too.

This was recommended to me as a I enjoyed of Gregory Maguire's Wicked (upon second reading) and even more so Susanna Clarke's far superior Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (my favourite). If that is how you came to hear of The Night Circus then I warn you I am no longer speaking to the friend who made that recommendation.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 November 2013

For the first hundred pages or so of Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus, the hype surrounding its US release seems entirely justified. Two rival magicians of immense power, Prospero and a Mr A. H., rekindle an old rivalry, pledging an unloved daughter and an orphan boy, respectively, to participate in a brutal contest of magical skill. Shortly thereafter, a Bohemian playboy convenes a group of superlative aesthetes, engineers and performers to create the most marvellous spectacle the world has ever seen; the titular Night Circus. The novel's steampunky Victorian setting is richly-drawn and brims with intrigue. The plot crackles with tension. The beautifully-imagined world holds a number of mysteries compelling the reader to press on. One eagerly awaits a low fantasy romp in the vein of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.

So where, then, does it all go wrong for the Night Circus? Perhaps it is when Morgenstern's imagination overreaches, and the contents of circus's tents - locked in an arms race, seeking to dazzle the reader with ever-escalating wonder - segue from the magical to the ridiculous. Maybe it is when the adversarial relationship between the two protagonists, Marco and Celia, degenerates into an emetic will-they-won't-they tale of frustrated love, barely worthy of the Twilight series. Perhaps it is merely after one tedious descriptions of furniture or clothes too many. What is not in doubt is that, after its spectacular opening, The Night Circus utterly squanders its potential. The result is a frustrating, unrewarding read.

Morgenstern's plotting is uneven, her characters shallow and unconvincing. Her initially compelling world later feels inauthentic; lacking any feel of internal logic, or reality beyond the novel's narrow confines. The Night Circus's tone, too, is sickly at times; that fraternal twins called Poppet and Widget are central characters perhaps gives some idea of the novel's flavour. Morgenstern's is a world populated, it seems, almost exclusively by kindly, slightly idiotic aristocrats, with little better to do than traipse endlessly around her creation, ooh-ing and aah-ing at its sights. Only the odd four letter word or splash of gore reminds the reader that this work is intended for adults.

In short, The Night Circus sacrifices almost everything in pursuit of painting the richest possible picture of the circus itself. In doing so, despite its flirtations with profundity, it is intended as a piece of escapism. No that there is anything wrong with that. A wonderfully-imagined creation could happily sustain the reader's interest for its five hundred pages, even if it felt rather disposable upon completion. More than any of its other flaws, then, it is Morgenstern's failure to sustain the circus' air of wonder that lets her book down. Despite the fulsome praise of almost every major and minor character, the circus reveals itself to be rather dull by the end of the book. Some tents are simply magic-enhanced versions of more humdrum entertainments (a fortune teller, a magic show, a hall of mirrors). Some tents do what they say on the tin, and little more (the Ice Garden, thrillingly, is a garden made of ice). A few contain intriguing ideas (the Pool of Tears was a favourate), whilst others are frankly weird (roll up, roll up, come and marvel at the tent of disconcerting smells in bottles!) Despite the much-described whiffs of toffee and eerie lighting, however, what the circus's tents do not add up to is an interesting whole.

The final nail in the book's mystique is Morgenstern's knack for answering its central questions in the most baffling manner possible. The circus, for instance, turns out to derive its awesome powers of wonderment from a magic bonfire. Prospero and A.H.'s challenge, whose true nature is pompously and cryptically alluded to throughout the book, is revealed to be little more than a game of chicken. Marco and Celia use the apotheosis of their combined powers to elope as ghosts, handing over control of the circus to a sixteen year-old boy who turns up that day, for no discernible reason. One is left with the feeling of resolution without explanation or meaning. Morgenstern seems to tire abruptly of her mysteries, and dispels them carelessly.

The Night Circus is salvaged from complete disaster by some evocative writing and a sprinkling of nice ideas. However, after a lacklustre finale and a series of non-explanations, I finished the book feeling cheated. In its self-referential praise, it's abandonment of plot, character and engaging themes, The Night Circus promises nothing more or less than a tour of the scintillating wonders of the author's imagination. What it delivers is an overwrought dud.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 November 2013
The Night Circus itself is at the heart of this book in several ways, and Erin Morgenstern wants you to know how enchanting it is. This book is full of descriptive passages conveying the Circus's beauty, some using the second person to walk you through your own visit, and others describing the new attractions designed by the book's protagonists, who are forcibly engaged in competition with one another. I was as enchanted as anyone at first, but in my experience the Circus got a little old. There's nothing surprising or original about either of the protagonists or how their relationship evolves until the very end, when they are put in a difficult situation. The book's obscure rules about magic are then used to deliver a compromise solution that, though it's not completely ideal, still feels like a deus ex machina.

For me, the most interesting characters were the secondary ones: the Circus's twins Poppet and Widget - whose relationship with the mysterious man in the grey suit is charming to read - and Bailey, a child who falls in love with the Circus and assumes a fundamental role in its future. The journeys of these characters were the best things about the book, whereas the central protagonists and their mentors offer no new takes on old tropes. There is a touch of death and loss, but without spoiling anything you never feel as though your favourite characters are in danger. Though the protagonists' mentors are clearly indifferent to the suffering of their charges, this fairy tale never feels as sinister as it could and perhaps should, which undermines the tension. The Circus itself starts out enchanting, but is pushed too hard for my taste, and winds up feeling overwritten.

In fairness, I'm not usually one for love stories, and prefer my escapist/fairy-tale fantasies with a little more darkness. If you're looking for a sweet magical love story, you'll probably fall for this book as so many others have. But if you have it in you to be cynical, or you demand originality, tension, and variance in tone, Morgenstern's spell will likely wear off in the last third, and you'll find yourself feeling apathetic by the end.
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