Friday is for Fiction: The Night Circus

I’ve been on vacation with my family this week, which has meant a lot of time to read. It also means I have time today to knock out a nice “Friday is for Fiction” review post.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one of those books that sticks in your head long after you put it down. It’s probably best described as a Victorian paranormal romance, without the requisite vampires, werewolves or other Universal Horror monsters.

It’s also one of those pieces of fiction where, like the Island from LOST, the setting is essentially the main character.  Le Cirque des Rêves (the circus of dreams) appears suddenly and mysteriously, is only open at night (hence, The Night Circus, ahem…) and is sort of the diametric opposite of our contemporary Cirque de Soleil.

Also, it’s powered by actual magic. In fact, unbeknownst to the quirky-if-somewhat-predictable cast of Victorian oddballs who launch it, the entire thing is simply the venue for a massive game between two magicians, who are playing out a sort of literalized philosophical war between their teachers, who subscribe to different schools of thought regarding the practice of magic.

If that sounds confusing and a little pretentious, it pretty much is, but you won’t really care. The ample enjoyment to be found in The Night Circus is not about magical philosophy (the substance of which is barely hinted at), or the game which is ostensibly the main plot, or the inevitable star-crossed lovers romance subplot, or the wholly unsurprising “an ordinary farm kid’s destiny is to save this fantastical world” sub-subplot.

Because all these plots are just there as a carrier for the rich, detailed and thoroughly enjoyable visual feast that is the circus and its inhabitants. Author Erin Morgenstern is also a visual artist, and The Night Circus is an intensely visual and sensual book.  If you aren’t dying for a sumptuous meal after the descriptions of the midnight suppers at Chadresh Christophe LeFevre’s house, you have no appetite. The descriptions of the various tents and exhibits within the circus, as the two magicians Celia and Marco attempt to outdo one another in creating impossible-yet-somehow-believable illusions and experiences, are lush and completely engrossing.

The characters are all vividly described as far as appearance. In another story, in another setting, the sparse interior descriptions for most of them might make them seem shallow, but the whole tone of the book makes them seem mysterious and intriguing instead. Rather like a circus illusion, you believe they have depth, even when in hindsight you realize that you learned very little about them other than what they look like and how they behaved on a few key occasions.

In The Night Circus, Morganstern has created a beautiful confection of a dream world. If the plot is a little predictable, that’s okay because it’s largely just an excuse to spend time with the characters, in a setting that by the end, you wish with all your heart you could really visit.

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