BWW Review: THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern
THE NIGHT CIRCUS absolutely blew me away when I first read it, and it still does now upon a fresh reading. It's gorgeous and Morgenstern has breathed so much life and vitality into her world that I felt something missing after I turned the last page. I wanted more. I wanted Le Cirque des Rêves to be real. I've always been enchanted by the magic of the circus, whether watching Cirque du Soleil or documentaries such as the six-part PBS reality mini-series Circus. Since first reading THE NIGHT CIRCUS, I've been chasing to find another book like it and have acquired quite a few circus-themed novels, but nothing has ever quite lived up to my expectations. (The closest I've found is last year's debut novel CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber, which was reviewed at BWW last month.) There's something so captivating and magical about the circus, but especially so with THE NIGHT CIRCUS. I'm having a lot of trouble putting into words just how much I loved this book. It's about so much more than just a circus. Romance, intrigue, enchantment, betrayal, wonder... This book holds so many emotions and concepts.
The novel takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century and focuses on two illusionists, Celia and Marco. At the beginning of the novel, two men come together to re-ignite the rules of an ancient game that they've been playing with one another over the years to see whose student and method of teaching is best. The two men have very different beliefs from one another and what started out as an innocent game of skills has evolved into something much more dangerous. One of the men announces that his young daughter Celia will be his newest pupil, while the other goes to different orphanages looking for "the one" until he discovers Marco. The two children never meet and are never told the rules of the game, only that someday, they will be forced to compete with an unknown opponent.
They both grow up to become highly skilled illusionists, with Le Cirque des Rêves as their battlefield. Marco is apprenticed to Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, the man who comes up with the idea of Le Cirque des Rêves. He helps implement it and bring life to a circus that comes alive only at night, where performers and the tents are decked out in shades of black and white and gray with no other colors present. Celia is hired as a perform and implements illusions. The moment Marco sees her perform, he knows that she is his competition, though Celia doesn't realize this until much later. She only knows that her competitor has some association with the circus. The two begin breathing new novelties into the circus and making it richer and fuller...but at the same time, each new creation is a move in their game. Over time, Celia and Marco also begin to fall for one another, forming a forbidden bond that could rival Romeo and Juliet's, since there can only be one winner and such a relationship will lead to nothing but heartbreak.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS is mesmerizing from page one. The first thing I noticed was Morgenstern's unique writing style. The entire novel is in present tense. Yes, present tense! Upon telling other people this, I've heard that not everyone cares for such novelty. To such people, I would say that I didn't even notice the tense after a while. You get used to it and begin to fall into the cadence of the style and get swept into the story itself. Another interesting aspect is that Morgenstern weaves in bits and pieces of the circus from an observer's perspective-and uses second person so that readers really feel in the moment, as though they're really at Le Cirque des Rêves. While consistently using third person, she does focus on multiple perspectives to give readers a fuller, richer story, though it is still centered around Celia and Marco. Her descriptions are stunning. Take, for example, Opening Night, when the magical bonfire that is the circus' heart is lit for the first time:
At midnight, the bonfire is ceremoniously lit, having spent the earlier part of the evening standing empty, appearing to be a simple sculpture of twisted iron. Twelve of the fire performers quietly enter the courtyard with small platforms that they set up along the perimeter like numbers on a clock. Precisely one minute before the hour, they each ascend their respective platforms and pull from their backs shimmering black bows and arrows. At thirty seconds before midnight, they light the tips of their arrows with small dancing yellow flames. Those in the crowd who had not noticed them previously now watch in wonder. At ten seconds before the hour, they raise their bows and aim the flaming arrows at the waiting well of curling iron. As the clock begins to chime near the gates, the first archer lets his arrow fly, soaring over the crowd and hitting its mark in a shower of sparks.
The bonfire ignites in an eruption of yellow flame.
Then the second chime follows, the second archer sends his arrow into the yellow flames, and they become a clear sky-blue.
A third chime with a third arrow, and the flames are a warm bright pink.
Flames the color of a ripe pumpkin follow the fourth arrow.
A fifth, and the flames are scarlet-red.
A sixth brings a deeper, sparkling crimson.
Seven, and the fire is soaked in a color like an incandescent wine.
Eight, and the flames are shimmering violet.
Nine, and violet shifts to indigo.
A tenth chime, a tenth arrow, and the bonfire turns deepest midnight blue.
On the penultimate chime, the dancing flames change from blue to black, and for that moment, it is difficult to discern the fire from its cauldron.
And on the final strike, the dark flames are replaced with a blinding white, a shower of sparks falling like snowflakes around it. Huge curls of dense white smoke swirl up into the night sky.
~pgs. 93 - 94 (US Hardcover Edition)
It is so easy to fall fully into the world of Le Cirque des Rêves and become immersed in its wonders. There are gardens made completely of ice, bottles that can bring you to another moment/place in time, and unrivaled performances.
The novel unfurls delicately, revealing more page by page. Some might call this slow-moving, but the pacing never feels off. In fact, every time new information is shared, it clicks another puzzle piece into place, even just small things like "So THAT'S why there's all that red on the book jacket." THE NIGHT CIRCUS delights me on so many levels and I'm already anticipating the day I get to pick it up again and come back to the circus.
If the book itself isn't spectacular enough, it's also packaged beautifully. Both the US and UK editions released the title with gorgeous covers, and when the book came out in paperback in the US, it tried to combine the two covers together and have the best of both worlds. I actually did a video review when THE NIGHT CIRCUS first came out showcasing how beautiful that edition was, so if you can get your hands on that version, it's definitely worth it!