The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Capsule Book Review

All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. …

When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:

Le Cirque des Rêves

Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.

“The Circus of Dreams,” comes the reply. The girl smiles delightedly.

Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.

Now the circus is open.

Now you may enter.

This is the kind of enchanting imagery used to describe the circus at the centre of this novel. It doesn’t have any clowns, animals, or trapeze artists. Instead, it’s full of starry-eyed wonder (reminded me of the Department of Mysteries from Harry Potter) and magic. In fact, what’s really at the heart of the story is not the circus at all, but the people in the circus, and a few others whose lives are intertwined with it. At the very core is a competition between two (for lack of a better word) sorcerors who play out their duel with the circus as their venue. It’s a very odd competition, actually. At first neither competitor knows the identity of the other, and the rules and objective of the game are a mystery as well (it’s difficult to explain and also a bit hard to understand). In fact, that’s part of the challenge of this book. While the prose is lovely and pretty, it’s a bit too ornate — kind of like a fancy dollhouse. It’s difficult to really relate to the characters or understand their cryptic motivations or explanations. Add to that the supernatural backdrop (where we are expected to suspend all disbelief) and we end up with an enjoyable story, but one that doesn’t really latch on. Granted, the world of the Circus is imaginative and colourful, and there are many interesting characters (including a pair of magical twins born on opening night), but everything feels kind of vague and insubstantial — like a perfumed fog. I guess that fits with the dreamy nature of the subject matter, but as a story and book it left me unsatisfied. (3.5 out of 5)

P.S. I did really enjoy the audiobook as read by Jim Dale. It gave me a whole lot of Pushing Daisies flashbacks, where he was the voice of the narrator.

fan art by Oinari Hime

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