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Review: The Night Circus

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

5/5 stars

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

I've read this twice before, and the third read was just as awesome. This time I listened to it on my road trip to & back from Louisville, KY. A quick note on that - the audiobook is read by Jim Dale, who did all of the Harry Potter books (and also narrated the TV show Pushing Daisies), and it was slightly disconcerting to hear him doing another story. But he's an amazing reader, so of course it was great.

The Night Circus is mostly about the thing itself: a circus that is open only at night - "Opens at nightfall. Closes at dawn." It is as mysterious as it is magical, traveling around the world with no pre-set tour dates, appearing seemingly out of thin air. As the first lines of the book explain:

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.

Everything at the circus is colorless, with only black and white featured in the tent's stripes, the floors, the costumes... even the flames burn white at the center bonfire. But Le Cirque Des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) is unusual in more ways than this. Because while a traditional circus may feature acrobats, magicians, and animals performing feats that seem magical, at this circus, actual magic - beautiful, intricate, enchanting magic - is passed off as illusion. This is a book of imagination and mystery, whose characters serve as Le Cirque Des Reves' champions, but do not overshadow its elegance.

Two ancient magicians, perhaps older than time itself, play an ancient game. Each has a pupil who they teach the wares of magic to, grooming them from a young age to compete. When the time is right, the "contestants" are pitted against each other in a magical contest, the rules of which are kept secret from them - including what will constitute a victory. The venue is different every time. This time, it's a magical, traveling circus. And when the contestants finally meet, their complicated relationship starts to have serious repercussions on all those involved with creating the circus.

The writing is extremely illustrative, creating complex and breathtaking imagery. If you bore at the sight of full paragraphs of descriptions - of, say, an extravagant meal, or a dazzling, magical circus tent filled with a labyrinth of clouds you can walk on - this book may not be for you. But if you love fantasy and the feeling of bewitchment, it is!

This is not a romance, or a thriller. There's a romance, yes, but it's not front and center. There's mystery, yes, but there are no action-packed chases through the maze of circus tents. There's a murder, but there's no who-dunnit. There's intrigue and confusion and messiness, but it's mellow and relatively painless. The Night Circus is thoughtful. It's imagination embodied. It's so... pretty! Morgenstern creates not just an interesting narrative with strong world-building - she is adept at creating an atmosphere that seems to affect all the senses. It's so vibrant and tactile. (And it would make an excellent movie or mini-series!! Someone get on that, already. It's been more than 10 years!)

No matter how much I love(d) a book, I always forget a lot of it fairly quickly... And sure enough, I'd forgotten a lot of the major plot points, so this was a pleasure to dive into again! As I have since I first read it in 2012, I highly recommend this gem.

(Cannot say the same for her second novel, The Starless Sea, which I reviewed here.)

When my book club, The Book Thieves, read this in 2013, I hosted a "Midnight Dinner" party at my apartment - all black and white with pops of red (if you know, you know). Meeeeemorieeeess.... :)


UP NEXT: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

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