The Night Circus: A Novel by Erin Morgenstern (New York: Doubleday, 2011. 400 pp)

Erin Morgenstern is a writer and artist. She studied theatre and studio art at Smith College. The Night Circus is Morgenstern’s first published work. She currently lives in Massachusetts.

Mind Tricks and Sleight of Hand

There’s something wondrous about a magician. Setting aside the cheesy music and the fantastical costumes, the magic trick is mesmerizing. Having been deceived by sleight of hand, I always want to deconstruct the illusion in attempts of learning the trick.

However, understanding the guts behind a magician’s work forces the viewer to comprehend the illusions differently. In short, the magic trick loses its luster. With ignorance comes joy as illusions erupt in splendor.

In Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the same principle holds: unaware of magic’s foundations, the book’s magic envelops the reader.

Two Protégés Compete 

Set in the late 1800s, The Night Circus follows two main characters: Celia the illusionist and Marco, a circus bookkeeper trained in magic.

Celia, mentored by her father, Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco, taught by the puzzling Mr. A. H., are connected by their mentors in a challenge of magical wits.

Celia and Marco learn the ways of magic by drastically different means. For Celia, the innate ability to alter her surroundings inspires her father to cultivate her talents.

“Even tasks as simple as tying her boots he forbids her to do by hand. She stares at her feet, silently willing the laces to tie and untie in messy bows, scowling when they tangle into knots” (24).

Marco, on the other hand, ascertains magic principles through intensive study supervised by Mr. A. H. Scooped up from an orphanage, Marco’s formative years are spent in books.

Unaware of the scope and results of the challenge, the two utilize the newly formed Le Cirque des Rêves—a circus open from dusk until dawn—as a staging ground for their effulgent acts of magic. Celia works as an illusionist adding her magical touch to the circus while Marco manages and operates the Circus from London, designing new attractions through magic.

A Dangerous Love 

As the years progress, the circus grows with each attraction more grand than the last. As each person’s magic influences the other due to a mutual understanding as competitors, Celia and Marco eventually shift from a competitive spirit to one of collaboration. To the chagrin of their mentors, the challengers fall in love.

Speaking of a rare moment when the two are in each other’s presence, Morgenstern notes,

“He turns to the crimson tree and it glows brighter, the red of embers shifting to the bright warmth of fire.
The surrounding trees follow suit.
As the light from the trees increases, it becomes so bright that Celia closes her eyes.
The ground beneath her feet shifts, suddenly unsteady, but Marco puts a hand on her waist to keep her upright.
When she opens her eyes, they are standing on the quarterdeck of a ship in the middle of the ocean.
Only the ship is made of books, it sails thousands of overlapping pages, and the sea it floats upon is dark black ink” (261).

This relationship threatens the balance of the competition and the circus operations. In truth, neither mentor expected such an occurrence. As the years progress, the weight of holding together the magical foundations of the circus causes considerable stress. With everything hanging in the balance, Celia and Marco need to devise a way out of the circus without losing everything.

To Remain Unenlightened

Photo by clogsilk

The Night Circus is a quick, entertaining read. Without complex sentences and overtly flowery language, I wouldn’t label the book literary by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, Morgenstern writes an impressively crafted narrative. With imaginative settings and characters, the story seems like magic. I feel much like the clock maker and circus-lover, Friedrick, when he discusses the circus with Celia:

“’Why haven’t you asked me how I do my tricks?’ Celia asks, once they have reached the point where she is certain he is not simply being polite about the matter.
Friedrick considers the question thoroughly before he responds.
‘Because I do not wish to know,’ he says. ‘I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark’” (183).

The Night Circus feels like a 400-page magic trick. Much like illusions in real life, not knowing the foundations of the magic adds to the story’s enjoyment. If you like magic and fantasy, The Night Circus is for you.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

What are your thoughts on magic? Do you need to know how it is performed? Have you read The Night Circus? How does it compare to other works of fantasy?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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