The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
Rarely does a jacket cover description of a novel fail so mightily to represent said novel like The Night Circus. It was almost as if the cover writer skimmed through bits and pieces and took a wild stab in the dark. This novel does have a competition of sorts between two illusionists set in a circus that eventually involves a love story, though none of this really does the book justice. The Night Circus is a fantasy novel that explores themes about methods of learning and teaching, fandom, mortality, imagination, and, yes, love. The novel is a whimsical journey of sight and smell set mainly in a wonderfully imagined circus, with real magic coaxing the attractions to life
The full video review is below along with my in depth analysis of the book.
Plot & Themes: 3/10
The philosophical nature of teaching and methodology serve as an underlying theme in this novel, though the author makes no clear argument on the matter and it only seems to be a vehicle that justifies the competition. Fandom is also touched on lightly, as the cultural phenomenon of the circus shows how such things can bring together people of disparate backgrounds and unite them through a shared passion. As a background theme this was a nice subtle inclusion that added to the circus itself and the need to keep it alive. Magic and illusion are also a large theme throughout. The magic itself is boundless in many ways and only thinly explained, leaving the readers imagination to fill in the gaps, while at the same time also unburdening them with the task of puzzling out the kind of complex rules that often accompany this theme. Thus, more hardcore fantasy fans may find it lacking, while casual fans of the genre will be pleased to simply be enthralled without needing to fully understand the how and why. Finally, there is also a romantic element that develops as the story progresses. However, for all the pains the author goes to in detailing the wonderous workings of the numerous magical creations, the love story itself seems to be all scaffolding and no actual structure. The foundation of the love story is laid far too thin and reaches a crescendo quiet suddenly. Ultimately, the romantic plotline dominating the second half of the novel did far more damage to the world and the overall story than anything else.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this novel is that the tertiary characters were far more interesting than the primary ones. The circus cast was filled with so many potentially interesting and unique characters, but as the novel progresses, they are each devoured by the machinery of the primary plot line. The supporting cast are also given sparse descriptions and can feel less than fully realized at times, though in many ways this only adds an element of mystery and allure befitting a circus of dreams. Nevertheless, many of these characters individual stories and development are ultimately abandoned as their true purpose is to serve as fodder for the “challenge”. That said, there are a select few who manage to wriggle out from the influence of the competition with varied success, and the development of these characters and their relationships were far more believable and engaging than that of the two illusionists. The illusionists themselves were cliched representations of children raised in loveless circumstances who are desperate for affection and fall improbably in love far too quickly. Their development is incredibly predictable and poorly executed. Furthermore, one of the lovers goes from a stable relationship with one character, to full obsession with their illusionist competitor, all while continuing to sting their first partner on for the majority of the story – even going so far as to send them off to monitor their new obsession. Then readers are meant to believe this is a noble character who’s sudden and complete devotion is genuine. Apparently magic in this world can turn a scoundrel into a good person with the turn of a page. Sadly, this is one magic trick that is difficult to swallow.
The pacing of this story was quite brisk. The chapters ranged from as short as two pages to around ten, and there was quite a bit of dialogue. In the end, this made for an interesting variation in tempo that fit well with the ambiance of the story. However, two aspects that can be distracting for some are the small time jumps and disjointing intermissions between chapters. This story has two primary timelines it works from, with the main illusionists and their competition within the circus dominating the central timeline, and a secondary character dominating the other. This is managed by paying attention to dates given for each chapter and it can be distracting at times to have to crosscheck when in time, even down to the month, something is occurring in the story. Still, the time gap is small and not nearly as convoluted as many other fantasy novels who have used similar tactics. Ultimately, it should be quite easy to follow with minimal effort or distraction. The intermissions, on the other hand, vary in scope and purpose. Mostly written in the second person, these intermissions involve experiencing some aspect of the circus – more often than not a new design from one of the illusionists – and generally serve as a nice segue from one chapter to the next. All in all, the quick pace of the novel and the subtle shifting tactics fit the mood of the book and made for an enjoyable read.
Narrative Style: 8/10
Morgenstern utilized a nice balance of narrative and dialogue. The greater part of her world creation focused on the circus and the various illusions that existed within it, which saved her from the fault in many fantasy novels of dedicating page after page to descriptive world building. Even in her descriptions of the illusions or the complex tricks, it is immersive and easily imagined without being excessively wordy. She also prioritized scent as a descriptor, and it worked wonderfully for creating a circus. Any avid fan of theme parks could attest that the most memorable ones go to great lengths to stimulate the olfactory system, and this book found a way to capture that. The dialogue in this book was quite natural and each character had a unique voice. The mood of the novel was also well maintained, pleasantly shifting from dark to light and serious to humorous when the moment called for it.
The Ending: 2/10
The ending of the book was predictable and cliched. Whether one feels the circus, or the lovers are the crux of the story does not alter the fact that the novel finds a magical way for it all to work out in the end. The love story, which is arguably the weakest developed part of the novel, plays a large part in how the story is resolved but the reader must be invested in that outcome to genuinely care how it works out. Unfortunately, many will find that they are more concerned with what will happen to the circus, rather than what happens to the two self-consumed illusionists. It then moves into the standard fantasy trope of how the world gets on after the big finale, finally attempting to address the true nature of the competition and its cryptic creators while also tying up other loose ends in predictable fashion. Nothing about the closing of this novel is moving or unique, which is possibly the most disappointing thing one could say of a book with so many marvelous ideas and such incredible potential. In the end, the author created an incredibly imaginative world using a wealth of creatively devised illusions all to tell a terribly banal story.
Final Verdict: 4/10
The Night Circus is a place many readers will long to visit the moment the novel begins. It is packed with mystery and allure, fully realized through sight, sound and smell. Readers will be engaged by the imaginative illusions and odd group of characters befitting such a circus, and the quick pacing of the story will find them speedily burning through pages without noticing how deep into this world they have swum. Unfortunately, the deeper they dive the more they will begin to realize that the two main characters who dominate this world are a fatal combination of brooding and arrogant that makes them completely uninteresting. Furthermore, it asks you to care that these two boring characters have magically fallen in love despite having nearly no interaction. Sadly, many will not. Then the story will begin to shove aside more compelling subplots to drive this mundane love story and the reader will find themselves wishing for an end when several chapters back they could not get enough of this imaginative world. Ultimately the lovers will end up saving the circus and themselves, after a fashion, so that they, and it, can live on in perpetuity. For many readers, however, disappointment over the predictable cliched ending and poorly developed plot will be the only thing that survives beyond the final pages of The Night Circus. Luckily for them, unlike the circus, this will quickly fade away and die.
Amazing review, Jonathon. You covered everything. I love that you add a video review. There is more detail than almost any review I’ve read of it. Nicely done.
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Thank you for the kind words, I truly appreciate it! I try to be as thorough as possible to give a fair overall of the books I read rather than just reduce it down to “it was good.” Sure, but in what way?
Hmm. I’ll have to go back and read the jacket cover now out of curiosity. I went into the book completely blind. Great review!!
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Thank you! I’d be interested to hear what you think of the jacket blurb now.. I felt it was really misleading…. like it was some intense magic battle with a hyper magical love story when the reality is that both were much more subdued.