Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Reviewing Policy:

Because I’ve never reviewed a book on here before (or elsewhere, for that matter), I thought I’d put up a little modus operandi with this review to explain how I plan on going about it.  I’ll be reviewing primarily what I regularly read for fun, namely YA fantasy, a smattering of adult fantasy, and contemporary literary fiction, usually historical.  I will of course comment on the classics in all genres that I happen to be reading, as well.

I likely won’t be posting negative reviews on this blog, because I don’t know if I want my antipathy towards Book X to be public knowledge.  However, I also don’t want to limit myself, so we’ll see how this plays out.

Also, I’ll only be reviewing books as I have the time and inclination.  I also have two other small commitments at the moment: a doctoral dissertation and a novel.  :)

UK Edition
In this transatlantic tale, two late-Victorian magicians pledge to set their students, Celia and Marco, against each other in a magical competition testing skill, invention, and sheer endurance.  A black and white circus, only open at  night, becomes the staging ground for a contest that takes almost twenty years to play out.  Marco and Celia of course fall in love, complicating their duel, whose stakes they don’t yet fully understand, and endangering Le Cirque des Rêves, which becomes more important than either the competitors or the competition that created it.

Morgenstern’s rich, sensory prose creates a magical atmosphere from the first words of the novel.  The author also does an excellent job of illustrating her mysterious, monochrome circus.  We see many characters – magicians, performers, patrons – experiencing the delights of the Night Circus: its sudden appearance and disappearance, acrobats who perform without a safety net, an ice garden.  Interspersed throughout the novel are second-person vignettes, which allow the reader to experience the circus for him or herself.

North American Edition
Morgenstern also makes excellent use of shifts in time, sometimes showing, consecutively, several characters’ experiences of a crucial event, sometimes jumping back and forth in time to illustrate the consequences of an incident or to dramatize an effect’s cause.  These time shifts are especially effective in the lead-up to the novel’s close.  This element reminded me, favourably, of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, also featuring dueling Victorian magicians.

Celia and Marco’s characters are complicated and well-drawn, especially as they come to discover that they are pawns in a larger contest.   The reader sees their sporting courtship through their contributions to the circus for years before they meet each other.  When they finally do meet, they fall in love hard and fast, but this is believable and has human and magical consequences, which Morgenstern follows through to their inevitable conclusion.  Supporting characters, such as the Murray twins (born on opening night), Bailey, a patron, and Herr Thiessen, the circus’s clock-maker, are also endearing.

Now, gripes, of which there are happily few.  First, though the prose is generally spot on, concise, and image-rich, it sometimes falters, slipping into repetition or weakened by unnecessary modifiers.  This is a shame, because the writing is otherwise so strong.  Second, there are elements which struck me as just too precious, such as the Murray twin’s circus act: acrobatic kittens.  Now, I love cats, but I just can’t see a cat being willing to tumble through the air purely for its master’s satisfaction, magic circus or no.  This felt a bit too cute for my sensibility, though perhaps it tickles everyone else’s.

When I picked this book up, I wanted it to be a virtuoso performance of a first novel, like Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (incidentally, also about 19th-century dueling magicians), solid, without a word out of place.  It wasn’t quite that.  Perhaps my expectations were unfortunately high, having taken in some of the pre-publication hype.  All else aside, this is a great book, whose perfectly-pitched ending made me choke up.  The Night Circus is a well-written, well-constructed novel about the power of dreams, imagination, community, and love that will appeal to readers of YA and literary fantasy.

Two addenda:

Book design: The UK edition is a joy to behold.  It has a lovely black and white cover with just a splash of red (the significance of which is explained inside).  Under the dust-jacket is a lovely red hardcover with a gold clock on the front.  The end papers feature black, white, and red top hats and bowlers (again, also significant).  There’s also a helpful ribbon to mark one’s place.  This was very helpful, as I have not yet acquired any bookmarks here.

YA crossover appeal:  This title could definitely succeed as a YA and could have been published as such, I believe.  Adult and young adult characters share the stage throughout the novel.  The Night Circus contains no more sexuality than one would might find in a YA directed toward older teens.

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