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.
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.
on 15 October 2012
I finished The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern yesterday after just 3 days of reading. I find it an amazing piece of work, and the best book I've read since I finally got round to reading Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending earlier this year.
The thing that gripped me was the voice, from the very first sentence. Written in the present tense, which I know is not very popular with many people for some reason, it still transported me into the past, and evoked all sorts of emotions in me, including a longing for my past, a wish to be able to influence more the future, and a determination to de-chaos the present. I know this sounds odd, but very good books lead the reader to some kind of catharsis.
The only thing I could nitpick are that, occasionally, sentences which really should be split by a full stop are only marginally separated by a comma.
I couldn't care less that the book has been really hyped, nor that there have been some fairly scathing reviews of it. To have what one might describe as a slow burner of a book which runs along diverging and then converging time lines, which sees dialogue as only part of the story, and one subservient to observation, description and atmosphere is a wonderful thing. To be able to hold a book in my hand that I know I can go back to over and over again to read favourite passages to myself, to take from the shelf on a rainy day and escape from the English weather is a boon in an age when the market is populated by celebrity memoirs and poorly-written, hardly-remembered pap.
If this seems overly effusive, I'm not sorry. This is a great book, and, for me, great literature.
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.
on 12 September 2013
"The Night Circus" conjures up a beautiful image of the circus and its members, captivating the reader's imagination so that they cannot fail to feel like part of the circus themselves. Each night I would visit the circus before bed and eagerly anticipate the dusk when I could see the blazing white flames of the bonfire and get lost in the maze of tents again, just like the patrons of the circus.
Best of all, each of the loose ends are tied up at the end so completely that the reader is left with a satisfied smile when turning the last page of the book.
Previous reviewers have mentioned a comparison to Harry Potter and suggested that Erin Morgenstern does not present the characters and world of the circus in such a "life-like" and believable way. However, it seems to me that "The Night Circus" requires just a slightly further wandering of all your senses to appreciate the smells and tastes and sights as they are described with such elegance throughout the book. The reader creates the circus, as they want it, this book does not use well-known places such as a school hall to help you to see the world as the author sees it. I love both, but they are not comparable.
I thoroughly recommend this book to those who like to have their imagination dazzled and like stepping inside the book rather than being left on the outside looking in.
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 soon got fatigued by them. And, then, some of them don't even makes sense: "We do not know what language he speaks" is a cracker. Erin, you're the writer and narrator of the story. So, you must have some idea. It doesn't even make sense that you (we) don't know. More and more of this "mystery" is piled up - but we aren't actually given a mystery to puzzle over, we are just told "you are mystified by this".
The mystery is drowned in a sea of its own mystery, and nobody knows what the mystery was and where it is now because it is a mysterious thing full of mystery. STOP IT!!! PLEASE STOP IT, ERIN, YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY!!!!
So, after a while I was thinking: "You know what, Erin, 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. There's no character development and no character development. No stopping all the chafing to have a chat and find out about each other, and enjoy each other's company. Nope, just more shagging, chafing, oww, please stop, yowchiness.
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 anyone interesting. Ever. 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 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.
"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.
on 21 February 2013
I wanted to like this book, I really did. It has magic, fantasy, history and a love affair. What more does one need? Well, quite a lot, actually.
Other reviewers have commented that this was case more of 'style then substance' and I'd have to agree. In fact, having read an awful lot of A level coursework lately, it seems very much like the kind of novel a teenage girl with an unlimited word count would write.
Girl (putting down copy of Twilight and cinema tickets for Beautiful Creatures), "I know, I'll write a story about two magicians who fall in love, even tough they can't be together. I'll set it in Victorian Europe, but I won't bother doing any actual research on the period (apart from the dresses, I'll write lots about the dresses, and use words like 'flowing' and 'gown'.)In fact, I'll make them all sound quite modern and have really casual, 20th C attitudes and that. I won't even use the word 'vex' once. Not once! I'll do lots of detailed description and use some Good Vocabulary. I won't bother with boring stuff like character development or plot exposition and I'll leave lots of questions unanswered cos it'll be, like, mystical and stuff. It'll have a happy ending though."
I finished the book feeling quite cheated and not a little vexed myself. I wanted more from it; more sophistication, a more challenging read. This feels terribly derivitive of lots of other books I've read over the years and I'm struggling to see the hype. She admits herself that she was influenced by Susanna Clarke. TO me, the whole thing was a bit of candy floss, or that sodding caramel stuff Morgenstein kept banging on about.
It made me mourn Angela Carter even more, and sent me back to re-read Nights at the circus.
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.
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.