TL;DR – two magicians, who can conjure actual magic, compete against each other using their proteges.
Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are selected by two rival magicians to compete in a deadly contest where the night circus is the stage. The two proteges conjure ever more intricate and complex spells in the night circus without understanding the rules of the contest or why the contest exists. Through each encounter, both in the real and magical world, Celia and Marco begin to connect on a level much deeper than mere competitors. And it is only revealed much later by their cold-hearted, immutable magician masters that the only way the contest will end is if one of them dies.
Erin Morgenstern’s tale of wonder and woe is sumptuously filled with evocative passages that seek to tantalise all the reader’s senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. It’s an ambitious undertaking but she achieves it through her incredible imagination of the night circus; a magical venue that opens only between sunset and sunrise and transports itself around the world in a blink of an eye.
A key pre-requisite to the reader is not to ask why. If you want to understand why the contest exists between powerful magicians – Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A. H. (aka ‘the man in the gray suit’) – then you will be sorely disappointed. If you ask, why do these two compete through proxy instead of duking it out themselves? You won’t get an answer.
Prospero and A.H. may have once been of this world, but from what I can gather they have reached a level of god-like power where they now use us as pawns in a chess game. They are aloof, stoic and lack empathy toward any other human being. This is demonstrated when Prospero is willing to use his own child as one of the contestants in their deadly game. Why? Don’t ask. I imagine the pair as two bored all-mighty beings who decided to use mortals in a game of life or death just for kicks.
Then there’s this little nugget that may drive readers to put this book in the bin or at least, back on the shelf:
“I’m not certain I understand the rules,” Marco says.
“You don’t need to understand the rules. You need to follow them. As I said, your work has been sufficient.”
Mr. A. H’s response is nothing short of him viewing Marco as a bug that needs to know how insignificant it is. The master magicians are perfect foils for making the reader care about Celia and Marco. And when the story focuses in on the young pair, the world opens to so much more.
What follows is an adventure that is spell-binding. A feast for fantasy readers. The supporting cast are integral in making the night circus come alive with more than the astounding magical feats of Celia and Marco.
Chandresh Lefevre (a theatre producer), Tsukiko (a contortionist), Friedrick Thiessen (a clock maker), Widget and Poppet (two children born on opening night of the night circus), Bailey Clarke (a young boy obsessed with the circus) and Isobel Martin (a clairvoyant and fortune-teller) are but some of the other characters and all have an important role in the the fate of the night circus and Celia and Marco’s lives.
I especially enjoyed Isobel Martin. Prior to meeting Celia, Marco and Isobel meet and fall in love. She is a tragic figure in the story because once Marco meets Celia he starts drifting away from her. But she plays a pivotal role in the circus. Her emotional conflict drew me in completely to the love triangle that confronts her, and actions that she takes are painful and genuine.
A welcome read that I have no hesitation in recommending to those who enjoy the fantasy genre.
Step right up, step right up, come one, come all and enter the night circus.
4.5 out of 5.