They say not to judge a book by its cover and I try not to. But I do judge a book by its first line. One of my very favorites is “The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.” How could anyone resist reading on after a line like that? This is the first line of part one of THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern, and it only gets more enchanting from there.
The child of the first line is Celia, Prospero’s daughter, who has been left to him by Celia’s now-deceased mother. Prospero performs around the world as an illusionist—except all of his grand, breathtaking illusions are actually real magic; he is a man of great power. He decides to raise Celia as an apprentice of sorts, fostering her natural magical ability and training her to be a great magician. Once Prospero sees that Celia has talent, he calls upon the mysterious Mr. A. H— to make a wager. Mr. A. H— will also find and train a protégé, and when the time and venue are right, the two students will face off in a battle of magical skill in which there can be only one winner—only one survivor. Though he is a man of few words, Mr. A. H— has considerable means: he goes to an orphanage and interviews several children before settling on a boy named Marco to be his student. Marco is brought up learning about magical symbols and sympathetic magic, and when he is old enough, he is sent to work for theatrical producer Chandresh Christophe Lefevre. Lefevre is producing a completely new kind of circus—one that only performs at night and features many different wondrous acts performing simultaneously in separate tents. When Celia comes to audition for the role of illusionist at the new circus, Marco knows he has finally met his opponent. The venue is Lefevre’s Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) and the competition begins on opening night. But what nobody involved counted on was the two young opponents falling in love.
I specified that the quote above is the first line of part one because there is a short section that precedes it. This section is one of many like it sprinkled throughout the narrative—it is an account of a visit to Le Cirque des Rêves in the second person. These sections are my favorites in the book. They are amazingly immersive and vivid—“you” experience the circus firsthand, as a first-time visitor would. Everything in the circus is black and white, with the only color coming from the huge central bonfire that burns in different vivid hues throughout the night. There is a cuckoo clock that is so enchanting and complex it seems like it runs on magic. The tents contain acts and exhibits beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings: an illusionist whose tricks are too magnificent to be explained, a flower garden crafted completely of ice, a maze made not of hedges but of clouds, and so much more. The author’s creativity in imagining the circus and its acts is endless. Morgenstern is a master at creating the mood and atmosphere of the circus; it is lush and vivid, and the feeling of it envelops you as you read. She also does an excellent job of not over-explaining the circus—ample room is left for the reader to populate the tents with their own dreams and imaginings, which only makes the circus more breathtaking and immersive.
The novel has so many wonderful fairy-tale elements that call to mind the best of Grimm; this tale is beautiful but dark—what could be darker than two lovers bound by an unbreakable spell to battle to the death? There are so many elements and characters that make THE NIGHT CIRCUS feel like a luxuriously romantic but tragically dark fairy tale: the orphan adopted by a mysterious, rich benefactor who means to groom him for an unknown purpose; an illusionist who performs acts of real magic and passes them off as tricks; callous old men making a dark wager, treating young lives like playthings; a clockmaker hired by an unknown customer, tasked with creating the most magnificent and dreamlike clock ever constructed; a contortionist who turns up with no explanation or background who may know more about the magical duel than she lets on . . . The list goes on and on.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS truly is a circus of dreams—the novel is an enchanting piece of escapism. It is a delicious romance folded into a nightmarish fairy tale folded into the most magnificent circus of all time. Fancy being enchanted and amazed? Come one, come all and lift the black-and-white canvas tent flap of THE NIGHT CIRCUS.