The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was almost good. I kept saying that the whole time I was reading it. “This is almost good.”

I was feeling in the mood for a good ‘curl up and read’ book, and I was about to start ovulating so I figured it would be a good time to tackle a romance (usually not my favourite), so I skimmed through various book club lists until I found The Night Circus. Ovulation is probably the only reason it got the third star.

The premise is that two magicians set up a challenge where they each enter a student and see who wins. The challenge is never fully explained, but it’s heavily hinted that they disagree about the best forms of training methods and seek to prove that their own methods are superior by producing the victorious pupil. But it’s also suggested that they’ve been doing these sorts of challenges for centuries and yet they still feel the need to keep digging up hapless children and abusing them into playing pieces for their satisfaction. They train their students and inform them that they will be challenging an opponent at some point in their life and ‘you’ll know it when you see it guys’ and that’s about it.

So at this point you might be thinking “Okay, so we’ll learn about the challenge along with the protagonists!” but yeah, you’d be wrong.

The venue for this duel is a circus. The girl, Celia, gets a job there as The Illusionist, performing magic passed off as clever tricks except it’s actual magic, of course. The boy, Marco, works from outside the circus, getting a position as the assistant to the owner of the circus. Marco works from outside the circus, Celia works from within. Each of them use their magical powers to create fantastical attractions, and eventually come to realize that this is the challenge. They must out-do their opponent and prove that they are the best.

I mean… I think so, anyway. It wasn’t really explained, and also it made no god damn sense. They spend the entire book creating fantastic things (which are all very interesting to read about) and then they wander around the circus and go “Ooh this is new! My opponent must have made this! How wonderful!” and then every so often they meet up and complement each other on their creations, or collaborate on something, and then occasionally have some forbidden sex.

And then every so often they press the back of their hand to their brow and lament “This challenge is such a strain I don’t know how much longer I can take it!” even though it makes NO sense to the reader why this should be a strain on them at all. It’s not even a challenge. They never challenge each other. They WORK TOGETHER on half of it and it’s constantly described how it’s such a pleasure to wander around through the circus attractions. If it’s supposed to be some sort of battle it certainly didn’t translate well into the text. The ‘scoring’ is never explained, to them or to the reader, and the purpose is never explained. Why would these two ancient magicians constantly play out ‘challenges’ where they enter two students who dally around with magic for decades (the challenges last ~40 years) where the only win condition is the death of your opponent? But they seem to rather enjoy collaborating together on things. It’s not like they’re chucking fireballs at each other, so there is no (reasonably explained) reason why they can’t just carry on forever until one of them dies of natural causes. Why is creating pretty circus attractions so stressful that one of them will eventually want to kill themselves?

Oh, right. Because it provides a tragic backdrop for a forbidden romance.

Plot qualms aside, I had some problems with the actual writing, too. The whole first half of the book felt… listless. I kept reading the descriptions of the circus and thinking “This is a really cool and wondrous location that is being described to me. So why is it so flat and boring?” It wasn’t until after the romance got rolling that the descriptions really started to pick up, and I really enjoyed the imaginative imagery after that, but the first half felt as limp as a warm lettuce leaf.

I had a similar issue with the characters. There are a lot of characters and they all feel flat and unremarkable, other than the main protagonists/antagonists. A lot of the punch in the plot lost its steam because I had some difficulty keeping the side characters straight. The protagonists aren’t necessarily all that remarkable either, if you want to be picky, but at least they have a bit of life to them.

I think a lot of the trouble is the choice to write it in present tense. Now, I’m biased because I hate present tense, but I’ve run across a couple books that used it well so I know it’s not impossible to impress me with it. This case is absolutely not a case where I think present tense is a good choice. If you think about it enough and really convince yourself, it kinda makes sense for this story. We have a circus that we’re clearly meant to be experiencing in the moment (there are several ‘second person’ scenes where the reader themselves are supposed to be investigating the circus. I hated all of them, by the way. Somehow they had the opposite effect of totally taking me out of the story… and they also tended to describe things that had already been described so it felt like a waste of time), and we have this supposedly deadly duel where we don’t know who will survive so present tense, in theory, should make that more exciting because it’s happening now. But the duel itself takes place over three decades and there’s not a single solitary direct attack in the whole thing. Also the setting is over a century ago so by default we know it happened in the past, even though the intent is probably to take us back there. But then the timeline jumps around! It just doesn’t work and it makes the whole narrative awkward and flat. If it hadn’t been written in present tense I feel like it would flow better, the characters would be more memorable, and the reveals would pack more punch.

Then we have the romance. The romance was okay. I deliberately read it while ovulating, and I definitely enjoyed some of the sequences, but by the end it was too sappy even for my ovaries. Once again: it just didn’t make enough sense. They’re bound together, so there’s some leeway there—they’re probably going to be drawn to each other in a special way, and we can forgive the explosions of magic every time their skin touches. It’s magic, after all. The problem is he is very clearly in love with her at first sight but she doesn’t even know who he is for half the book, and then doesn’t fall in love with him until a little ways after that. When she does it feels like it comes out of nowhere. And then, even after they get things rolling, he’s got a girl on the side that he keeps around for years? /facepalm. But, naturally, by the end they’re both falling over each other to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. “I’m gonna kill myself to save you!” “No I’m gonna kill myself to save you!” even though it makes no god damn sense that either of them have to die at all.

But the ending wrapped everything up in a fairly satisfying little bow, even if it dragged on a bit too much. Three stars.

Apparently the movie rights have been purchased already. I can’t decide if it will be good or not. It has the potential to be good, but odds are it will not be good. The imagery is just crying out to be brought to life on a screen but it will be difficult to do it justice, and they’ll Hollywood the shit out of the romance and make it unbearable. I’d probably still watch it but only on Netflix.

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