In her fiction debut, multimedia artist Erin Morgenstern invites the reader into a fantastic world that comes to life on the page. Morgenstern makes unusually adept use of intermittent second person narration to personally invite the reader into a magnificent spectacle in which a nocturnal, black and white circus serves as the venue for a magical faceoff between the pupils of two rival magicians with different teaching philosophies. However, the instructors’ plans are complicated when their apprentices, Celia and Marco, fall in love.
The great strength of this novel is the development of the circus mise en scène. Ostensibly set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the action of The Night Circus takes place largely within the bounds of Le Cirque des Rêves, insulated from the passage of time. While the world outside the circus—with the exception of Chandresh’s parties—is stripped down and barely described, attention is lavished upon the details of the exhibition ground. Lush descriptions allow the reader to effortlessly construct the circus in the mind’s eye as Morgenstern beautifully captures all five senses in words. So lovingly is the circus described that it feels more real and immediate than the characters themselves.
Indeed, the primary criticism of The Night Circus is that the lead characters are not as fully fleshed out as they might be. Although they are the protagonists, we know much more about Celia and Marco’s powers than their personalities. Their romance has a certain sense of inevitability; Celia and Marco seem to be in love not because their characters are drawn to one another, but because the plot and the setting demand it. This is put best by the mysterious contortionist, Tsukiko, who comments that she has “been surrounded by love letters you two have built each other for years, encased in tents.” However, the less than relatable protagonists are amply supported by a stunning cast of secondary characters
The supporting cast is rounded out by the mercurial visionary behind the Circus, Chandresh, the ardent circus follower and clockmaker, Friedrick Thiessen, the twins born at midnight upon the opening of the circus, Poppet and Widget, and their friend, the young circus devotee, Bailey. Chandresh’s story allows Morgenstern to examine the implications of the complex duel setting for those involved in its design. Herr Thiessen and Bailey exemplify the innocent magic of the circus for the outside observer. Poppet and Widget are children who have never known life outside the circus, and indeed are inextricably bound to it as more than mere performers. Morgenstern offers a refreshing depiction of gender roles in fantasy, giving us a world where “most maidens are perfectly capable of saving themselves” and it is quite all right for boys to wonder “why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves.”
Moving backwards and forwards through time from the inception of the circus to the crisis of the magical competition, Morgenstern weaves together a complex structure which enhances the mystery and tension of the circus without confusing the attentive reader. The magic of the circus makes this book impossible to put down, even when the pacing lags a little. Readers expecting a magical version of The Hunger Games will be sorely disappointed, as the toll of this battle is largely emotional; The Night Circus is more theatrical exhibition than gladiatorial arena.