Le Cirques des Reves, or The Circus of Dreams, is a unique and magical place open only from dusk until dawn in whatever city it happens to show up in. Guests can wander through a myriad of tents, each featuring different acts, like illusionists or fortune tellers, or active spectacles, like a multi-level labyrinth. The tents change, new ones always being added, and there are too many for one person to ever fully explore. Every visit to the place is different.
This is the backdrop for Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus. Set at the turn of the 20th century it is the story of two magicians (as in literal magic users, not tricksters) trained in two different schools of thought competing with the circus as their arena. They add new attractions to the space, trying to one-up each other or build off of what the other has created. They have been set against each other by their mentors, bound to the challenge, whose rules are kept a mystery, through magic. But what begins as a rivalry turns into a romance, which complicates the challenge.
As a debut novel I think The Night Circus is very impressive. Morgenstern created an immaculate world into which she is able to draw the reader with her clean, but well-polished prose and interesting cast of diverse characters. The structure of the story corresponds to the circus in many ways. Its non-linear format and the way that it hops between many different perspectives feels almost like visiting all of the different tents, seeing bits and parts of a larger world that slowly coalesces into a sensible whole as the story comes together.
To me the “coming together” is probably the weakest part of the story. Light spoilers ahead…
After such an immaculate build-up, I felt that the ending was a little bit flat. The mentors, who are clearly not good people, were let off the hook for their role in the tragedy and tumult that has occurred largely due to their little bet. And the resolution of competition between their students, Marco and Celia, felt a little forced, especially given all of the build-up and the amount of time the story covers. The competition, the romance plots, and the fate of the circus are resolved neatly without the heightened drama or conflict I was expecting, seemingly through fate more than anything else.
However, despite my misgivings about the ending, I did enjoy reading the novel. And I will say that I didn’t find the ending immediately disappointing after finishing the book. I just considered how it might have been better after I reflected on it for a little while. As I said, Morgenstern’s world is incredible to explore, and the writing really makes it pop. I think this book is certainly worth your time, especially if you’re looking for a story that is somewhat Gaiman-esque, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what other stories Morgenstern produces.