Plot Junkie: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

But it is not open for business.

Not just yet….a black sign painted in white letters hangs upon the gates, one that reads:
“Open at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn.”

Two magicians resume their centuries-long battle of wits in late-Victorian London. Each wagers their prize student: the stage-magician known as Prospero trains his daughter, Celia—who absolutely refuses to go by Miranda—by slitting her fingertips open until she can divert her attention from the pain and the pooling pooling to heal them all at once; his opponent, known only as the man in the grey suit, plucks Marco from an orphanage and locks him  in a library to study for the next several years.  Both Celia and Marco know that they are players in a game not their own, and the scar each wears on their left ring finger painfully reminds them of their role should they happen to forget.

The game begins in earnest several years later, when the plans for the circus are conceived. Marco settles himself as the invaluable assistant to the eccentric designer of the circus, while Celia is hired to work in the circus as the illusionist.

The circus is not the traditional elephants-and-antic-clowns affair. Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) is a maze of tents containing enchantments large, small and breathtaking: a greenhouse filled with “the scent of rose and ice and sugar” and made entirely of ice, down to the last flower petal; a fire-eater who sculpts the flames in her bare hands; a reflecting pool full of human tears that transmits memories; a tent full of “fearsome beasts and strange creatures” made out of paper and mist; and a fortuneteller who uses not a crystal ball but a handful of stars to stir her premonitions.  (from this NPR review)

The “maze of enchantments” is assumed by the nightly visitors to be merely skillfully performed tricks and clockwork trinkets; they don’t know—though perhaps a few suspect—that the circus itself is magic, held in an uneasy balance of power between the two masters’ students. When that balance is threatened, Celia and Marco are just as trapped by the game as the hundreds of other inhabitants of the world of The Night Circus.

 

What I thought: Absolutely intoxicating. Gorgeous. Whirled me away. Couldn’t put it down. I gulped it down in one long marathon (a very long marathon…it’s 400 pages) and I’m now dying to reread Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, to which it is more than a little indebted.

It’s a little bit of a fairy tale, a little bit Arthurian legend, a little (ok, a lot) Nights at the Circus, a little bit Orlando (the bit towards the beginning when they are skating in St. Petersburg), and a little bit The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (all that dark magic), even a little reminiscent of CarnivaleThe Night Circus is one of the best books I’ve read in forever. Absolutely magical. Took me quite decidedly away from my own little corner of the world.

All that hype? Completely justified. This book was totally worth breaking that eight hours of sleep resolution.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. And you? What’s on top of your stack of books this week? 

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