“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.”
So begins The Night Circus, the debut novel of American author Erin Morgenstern. We start here, outside the circus gates, waiting for them to swing open and allow us into this strange world where the line between illusion and reality is blurred and magic is possible. Over the course of the book we’re drawn further and further into the circus and the interconnected lives of the people in and around it, in particular two young magicians named Celia and Marco. Celia’s father is an enchanter named Prospero, while Marco has been taken into the care of Prospero’s rival, a shadowy gentleman who is known only by his initials, A. H. The novel opens in the late nineteenth century with the two men agreeing to begin a game in which Prospero and A. H. will each train a protégé to compete in this contest of skill on his behalf in a specially created arena: a magnificent circus, in which Celia and Marco must display their skills in the fine art of manipulating reality with magic until one of them is declared the winner. However, neither mentor has anticipated the consequences of bringing Celia and Marco together, creating a source of considerable tension as the two young sorcerers are caught between their feelings and the game for which they have spent their entire lives preparing.
The circus itself, which only opens at night and is entirely black and white, offers a return to the wonder of childhood. It’s a stylised dream landscape of black and white tents, intricate clockwork and illusions that cross the line between conjuror’s tricks and real magic. Everything in the circus, from the vertical cloud maze to the garden of ice, is exquisitely beautiful and imagined in great detail by Morgenstern, who paints a monochrome and yet hypnotising portrait of the novel’s main setting while tantalising her readers with the knowledge that this is only a glimpse of the circus’ seemingly infinite power to amaze and delight. Morgenstern’s use of multiple perspectives allows us to view the circus from both inside and out, behind-the-scenes as Celia and Marco strive to outdo one another with ever more elaborate illusions, and from the point of view of a temporary visitor named Bailey who joins the ranks of the Rêveurs, dedicated followers of the circus in its travels around the world, because he does not want to leave the dream behind when morning comes.
The Night Circus’ unapologetic commitment to magic realism makes it a fantasy book for lovers of fantasy, but fans of historical romance and a particular late-Victorian aesthetic of clock wheels and gas lamps will also be drawn into the nocturnal adventure as long as they are not deterred by enchanters, telepathy, and tarot cards. Those who want to explore the Cirque des Rêves more fully can add to their reading experience by wandering through the tents at nightcircus.co.uk, a virtual card game with additional content, the option to connect to social media accounts, and a suitably mysterious atmosphere.
Morgenstern’s sensual prose allows her to carve out a niche within a genre where true originality is highly sought after, and I look forward to being transported to new dream worlds in her future work.