“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”
― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for those yet to read the book.
The Night Circus is a phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an ahistorical Victorian London in a traveling mystic circus that is open to the public from sunset to sunrise.
Officially known as Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), this fantastical creation is host to a menagerie of curious pageantries and ethereal enigmas.
From a thriving garden made entirely of ice, to a precipitous cloud maze or get lost simply step off a platform and drift gently to the floor.
Le Cirque des Rêves is bound by neither time nor predictability, it arrives without warning and leaves unnoticed just the same.
Yet, even the brightest stars are cast in shadow for the circus exists to serve a darker purpose beyond pleasure and profit.
It was designed with all intents and motivation to fulfill the cruel fancies of the revered magicians Prospero the Enchanter and his cryptic adversary, Mr. A.H.
The two sorcerers groom their young proteges, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, to proxy their rivalry with the circus acting as their battlegrounds.
Prospero teaches his daughter to hone her innate abilities by manipulating the physical world to ever more comprehensive and complicated extents.
Celia takes her position on the game board as the illusionist, using her craft to transform and maintain the circus and its occupants from the inside.
Meanwhile, Mr. A.H trains his orphan ward with books in the ways of glyphs and sympathetic magic and illusory worlds that exist only in the mind of the beholder.
Marco takes a position as majordomo to the producer of the circus; he works from the outside in, remaining connected to the circus but not entirely attached to it.
The two players captivate each patron who steps through the gates of Le Cirque des Rêves and each other with nightly spectacles and enchanting inventions.
But the game begins to shift, as two sworn rivals find themselves falling in love with each other despite having never met; surrounded by their love letters disguised as tents and illusive fantasies.
But Marco and Celia are magically bound to a deadly competition, subject to rules neither truly understands or concedes.
Even so, they are not the only ones at stake as their uncanny courtship strains the fate laid out for them and endangers the circus that has touched the lives of so many and cannot survive without the talents of both players.
But love conquers all, or so one must believe if they are to venture past the gates of Le Cirque des Rêves.
Celia Bowen, the Illusionist:
Celia Bowen is the illegitimate daughter of the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter a.k.a Hector Bowen.
After her mother passes away, she is placed in Hector’s care, and her father immediately catches on to her natural talent for magic that more or less travels in the same vein as his abilities.
Hector Bowen is nothing if not ambitious, and he takes advantage of his daughter by contacting his colleague and rival and proposing a game of sorts with Celia as his player, which is the central conflict of the novel.
Unsurprisingly, Celia happened to be one of my favorites. She can be described as a pretty, charming, and very clever individual with a natural talent for magic.
At first, she sounds boring, made out to be like any other heroine you’d have read about but her real charm lies in the way Morgenstern has written her, portrayed as this elusive figure trapped between reality and fantasy.
You will fall in love with her quirks and her gentle manner, her ease of character and clever ingenuity. She may sound like any other drab protagonist but it’s the writing that truly makes her feel alive.
I found that I could relate to both her and Marco throughout the story, and that made it feel like they had a tangible presence.
Marco Alisdair is an orphan boy sought out by Mr. A.H. to act as his proxy in the game against his rival.
Unlike Celia, Marco was not possessed with a natural talent for magic and instead studied the craft under Mr. A.H’s instruction for years before officially joining the competition alongside Celia when the circus first opened as an assistant to the proprietor of the circus, Chandresh Christopher Lefèvre.
Marco can most appropriately be described as the silent observer. He is not as directly connected to the circus as Celia but plays a key role in its workings nonetheless.
While Celia is shown to be skilled in physical manipulation, Marco’s strengths lie in mental dexterity and delusive feats with a knack for charming his audience.
However, due to the nature of his work, he tends to be secretive and somewhat manipulative, though Morgenstern gives the reader the impression that this is more accidental than intentional and Marco comes to feel genuine remorse for those he has deceived, further cementing this notion.
In terms of his determination, he is shown to be highly creative and dedicated to his work both for the circus itself and towards his game with Celia.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I like Marco’s character. It was rather interesting that Morgenstern placed a seed of doubt in the credibility of his character as demonstrated through his treatment of Isobel Martin, the circus’s fortune-teller, and his somewhat estranged lover early on in the novel.
It added complexity to an otherwise dull premise for his role in the story which is why I was taken with him in the first place.
That, along with his small habits that Morgenstern inserts into the story such as love of reading, and the meticulous way he keeps his studies and journals organized. It’s the little things that make both him and Celia feel alive.
Those Who Remain:
Would you like to hear something shocking? I don’t think I hated a single character in this book, not even the antagonistic ones!
I must say that all of the characters in this book were lovely. Each one had a unique personality and no two felt alike, not even if they were twins.
As I stated before, Morgenstern’s writing made it so that they felt truly alive and the atmosphere of the circus helped to achieve this goal because it truly felt as though you were walking along the small streets of the menagerie watching this world of complex wonder unfold before you as a silent spectator.
All of the variable side characters were generally rounded and fleshed out with their personalities, goals, quirks, backstories, etc, with only their love for the wonders of the circus in common.
Additionally, the progression of their character felt very natural as the story progressed and I do admit that I became rather attached to each of them, to the point it felt almost painful to say goodbye at the end of the book.
In short, everyone involved in this story is unique and memorable and they truly helped to breathe life into Le Cirque des Rêves. I will not be forgetting them anytime soon.
Before I begin, please allow me a moment to step behind the curtain and sob dramatically before I may regain my composure enough to tell you how magical and beautiful this novel is.
For anyone who has read my reviews of romance books in the past will recall that most of the time, I dread reading love stories.
Now that isn’t to say that I am a prude or even put off by the concept of love and romance.
I think it can safely be said that I am a bit of hopeless romantic, even if my rants about unnecessary love stories in the past suggests otherwise.
Here’s the thing, I like romance.
I like reading about, I sometimes daydream about it, I enjoy hearing gentle stories and indulging in tender passions in the form a light read late into the night. But that’s only when romance is done well when it is truly enjoyable.
The reason I hate most modern romances is that they are based around physical attraction. They often involve love (more like lust) at first sight, are centered around conventional and accepted cliches like the rich and handsome bad boy with daddy issues who has a heart of gold buried under the rough exterior, are written poorly with little plot or reason, have boring two-dimensional characters, or are just plain dull or creepy.
These all sound like things that would turn away most readers but here’s the kicker, they don’t. These are the very stories that sell the most. Now, if you personally like there are stories, then good for you, you have access to a very wide market and you’ll never run out of reading material.
This is not meant to criticize anyone’s literary tastes, read whatever you want. But for me? I hate those stories, they’re all written with the same formula and eventually they all start sounding so alike it becomes difficult to tell them apart.
But the ‘Night Circus’ is something special. It is the first book with romance as a central theme that I have well and truly enjoyed. I love the story, the setting, the creativity and passion that envelopes this story.
This novel has honestly wormed its way into heart, so let me tell you a bit about it.
The first thing I want to touch on is the writing.
Morgenstern’s writing is something that is an honest godsend, filled with elaborate portrayals and vivid imaginings.
It genuinely makes you feel as though you are a patron roaming the narrow alleys of Le Cirque des Rêves, from everything down to the feeling of the stone pavement beneath your feet to the scent of caramel and smoke in the air. Morgenstern has a habit of going off on a tangent with her descriptions.
Ordinarily, this detracts from the story and makes it difficult to follow along and is generally considered a sign of bad writing because it gives off the impression that the author is unsure of what they are doing and is using meaningless detail to distract the reader from this flaw.
But here, these lucid renditions deliver the opposite effect. It is Morgenstern’s enticing visage of the ‘Night Circus’ that brings it to life.
Where normally excessive detail would detract from the quality of a story, here it is a central element that makes the circus truly unique. As strange as it may sound, you are meant to feel this book, to take in its disarming atmosphere, and let its charm sweep over you.
Morgenstern executes this wonderfully through her opulent narratives, making it so that the circus feels like an authentic and tangible object, as though you could look out your window and just barely make out the tops of the black and white tents that you swore were not there last night.
This story is about what it means to once again experience that childlike wonder and glee so many of us felt when we were young, and Morgenstern intimately captures this emotion; allowing us to find it anew in the pages of this enchanting novel.
When I write a review for a book, I like to go online and read what others have said about it.
I particularly focus on negative evaluations, especially for works that I loved, just to get a clear picture of the other side to ensure that I did not miss any important details.
After all, they do say that love is blind. The most poignant criticism I read about the ‘Night Circus’ was:
“How can two people who have never met, fall in love?”
Ask me that question before I read this book and I’d tell you that the very thought of that happening is ridiculous and fantastical. After reading this title, however, I can tell you just how such a thing could happen and why I love this story because of it.
You see, in the novel, while Marco and Celia have met officially as they are both members of the circus; she does not know that Marco is her opponent, not until years later.
Marco, on the other hand, deduced that Celia was his rival after he watched her audition for the role of the Illusionist back when Le Cirque des Rêves was little more than an impossible dream.
Barring that, Marco and Celia rarely had interactions outside of Chandresh’s dinner parties; only becoming truly aware of each other after Celia realized he was her opponent.
Now the question, “how did these two fall in love?” aptly applies to this scenario because, under typical circumstances, it wouldn’t make any sense. But the circus and its residents are anything but typical, mind you.
While Marco and Celia may have never physically interacted until partway through the story, that does not mean that they were oblivious to the other person; they were not intimately familiar with each other before then as nothing could be further from the truth.
There is one detail to bear in mind as you read this, to bear in mind; Marco and Celia’s story takes place over nearly thirty years.
In that time, they played the game they were bound to so long ago, and the way they did so is by adding new and extraordinary wonders to the circus. One would develop a garden made entirely of ice while the other invents a maze built to imitate the softest clouds.
And then they share an attraction, a labyrinth of twists and turns with rooms so unique you’d think you’d wandered into a beguiling purgatory rather than a simple maze.
Each tent started out as a move to continue their game but somewhere along the way, they started paying attention to the intricate details in the space, started looking for the hidden nuances, began sharing secretive smiles in the privacy of their conceptions.
The tents that were once meant to constitute a rivalry transformed into intricate love letters, designed not to claim victory over one’s opponent but to mimic a lover’s embrace, to comfort and express longing, desire, and affection.
While they never met in person until Celia learned of her opponent’s identity, they courted each other through the circus, using their inventions to speak the words they could not voice.
Marco and Celia fell in love despite their anonymity because they were not drawn in by physical attraction or immaterial lust but instead became enchanted by the other’s mind, their creativity, and their imagination.
They looked for the private facets and distinctions throughout the menagerie and found each other amongst the fantastical chaos. They used their minds and their magic to form a significant and enduring relationship, which is why it was never necessary for them to meet for it to happen.
The circus had been their stage since the beginning after all.
And that is why I love this book. Yes, the physical attraction did play a role since they both desired each other but that came long after the gears were set in motions.
They formed a sincere connection with their minds and artistry, not their bodies which are exact qualities most romances are missing.
By inverting the formula, Morgenstern was able to create something lasting and meaningful, something that felt whole and genuine.
And those are the details I crave in these stories and I have finally found a book that more than met my expectations. It felt natural and sensuous and honest and really what more could you want?
A Word of Caution
Those of you who are considering reading this book should be aware of its marketing error.
The book is vended to be this story of an intense, and destructive rivalry between Marco and Celia genuinely painted as a sort of magical Hunger Games.
This interpretation, however, is false.
The ‘Night Circus’ is a very long story with a slow-burning romance. Did I mention the premise is set over thirty years? So really, don’t pick up this novel expecting a quick, fiery romance that is centered around a love/hate relationship because you will be very disappointed and be unable to appreciate the beauty of this novel as it truly should be.
This book centers less around the plot and more so on the atmosphere, the writing and the complexity of the characters and the circus itself.
The competition for the most part is a vague, almost mythical sort of thing while it is a central point of the premise, it is not the main focus.
So if this doesn’t sound like a book you would need right now, save it for later so that you can truly savor it.
The ‘Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern is a truly enchanting tale of love, consequence, and wonder.
It is a story that will transport readers into a world they never thought they’d need, leaving a lasting impact on their minds as all good books should.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I can safely say it has found a special place in my heart and its a story everyone should experience at least once.
I don’t have any major complaints, just that I wished I could have had a bit more content with Marco and Celia exploring their relationship further and that the ending, as much as I loved it, could have been concluded more securely either with an extra 100 or so pages after the climax or through a novella published separately at a later date.
That being said, I adore this book and I am looking forward to reading Morgenstern’s second novel, another stand-alone titled, ‘The Starless Sea’. I hope to revisit this book again soon, and for anyone who has yet to read it, I sincerely hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
I like to listen to music when I read, it helps me to focus and really recreate the atmosphere for the story.
My playlist for ‘The Night Circus” is made up mostly of instrumentals and soundtracks from some of my favourite composers and a few new ones that I discovered as a happy accident.
W. / E. Movie Soundtrack
Satin Birds by Abel Korzeniowski – This one works well as a theme for Chandresh’s parties early on in the book.
The Theory of Everything Movie Soundtrack
Domestic Pressures by Jóhann Jóhannsson
A Nostalgic Dream – I basically consider this Marco and Celia’s theme at this point.
A Wizard’s Dream – I found this one very fitting for quieter, more introspective moments in the book.
Potions and Pranks – This one was a really nice instrumental for lighter moments in the book, especially near the beginning. Here’s an extended version of the song since the original is too short.
The Vampire Masquerade Waltz Collection
I listened to these tracks by Peter Gundry whenever the scene focused on the circus itself.
In other words, these are basically songs that make for perfect mood music when it comes to Le Cirque des Rêves.
Personally, I thought that ‘An Extraordinary Tale’ would make the perfect theme for the circus.
Marco and Celia
Merlin’s Sleeping Spell by Peter Gundry
A Nostalgic Dream (I basically consider this Marco and Celia’s theme)
The Thin Blue Line Movie Soundtrack
Houston Skyline / End Credits Michael Riesman – Really good for dramatic reveals or tense moments, especially towards the end of the book.
Adrian Von Ziegler
In light and Darkness – For that one intense scene at the end of the book.
Ean Grimm, Derek Fiechter and Brandon Fiechter
These instrumentals went well with the quieter, creepier moments in the book, especially towards the end.
Shadow Wolf Woods (This is a compilation from the composers)
Photo by Valentin Petkov on Unsplash