Welcome to Le Cirque de Rêves. Are you ready for a game of true magic?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is the story of Celia and Marco, chosen when they were children to be part of a game that would test their magical abilities and push them to their limits. Selected as they were by their paternal figures, they had no say of their own, making them not only players but pawns. Neither child knew the identity of their competitor, initially, but as they grow older, their paths cross, and the stakes are raised when one recognizes the other's abilities and their stories intertwine.
It is said that this game has gone for some time, each time with two competitors, but the rules are never stated and the forum is the world at large. This is the world we know - the average person lives an average life troubled by gravity, responsibility, and other people - as opposed to a wholly supernatural world. (Or is it?) The talents these people possess are unknown to the general populace, and they walk among us with ease. For example, Celia becomes an illusionist at the circus, where people are blown away by her tricks, not knowing they are real, not knowing that she actually is transmogrifying objects.
This particular round of competition book begins in New York in 1873, when a five-year-old girl with an envelope pinned to her coat arrives at a theater:
The theater manager does not need to read the envelope to know who the girl is for. The bright eyes peering out from under a cloud of unruly brown curls are smaller, wider versions of the magician's own.
This is Celia. Her mother has taken her own life, and the envelope contains her suicide note. The magician, Prospero, aka Hector Brown, immediately recognizes her abilities. Within months, he has contacted another man, volunteering his daughter without her consent or understanding and setting the new game in motion.
Elsewhere, a boy is adopted, his mysterious caretaker picking him out to be the other player. Soon, the boy's fingers are covered in ink as he fills journals with words and symbols and reads all of the books he can get his stained hands on. This is Marco.
Neither of them recite spells. Neither of them invoke names of gods and goddesses. Their powers are typically contained and controlled by their minds, put into action with a flick of the wrist or no movement at all, just a thought, just a suggestion, just a desire.
Then Le Cirque de Rêves - The Night Circus - is created. This unique collection of tents presents attendees with performers and sights to see set in black and white, stark contrasts and amazing feats illuminated by bright white fire. Each tent has a different performer or theme: a contortionist, a tarot card reader, cat-tamers. Many of the tents have things one can't experience in daily life, imaginative, sensory, and mystifying things which often seem to exceed the limits of the tent walls, allowing people to explore labyrinths and walk on clouds, to relive personal memories and revisit their pasts, to release their sorrows and lighten their burdens. Marco is an assistant to the creator of the circus; Celia is hired as an illusionist.
As the game plays out, the story deepens. Pay close attention to the date and location placed beside each chapter title to stay oriented. Time travel is never an element of the story, but the chapters do oscillate between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, with the anticipation increasing as the two paths become closer and closer on the timeline. In addition to Celia, Marco, and their paternal puppeteers, important characters include a clockmaker, an architect-engineer, a retired prima ballerina, two chatty sisters, a boy who yearns to escape the trappings of his family life, and a pair of young twins with paranormal abilities. I really liked Poppet and Widget, the twins who were born the night the circus begins. I also thought the twist on the ghost character was inventive. As the circus moves from town to town and time marches on, alliances are won and lost as truths are revealed or concealed. It's a very intriguing story, and everything builds to the finishing moves in the game.
"Anything either of us does has an effect on everyone here, on every patron who walks through those gates. Hundreds if not thousands of people. All flies in a spiderweb that was spun when I was six years old and now I can barely move for fear of losing someone else." - Celia, page 318
This book was recommended to me, and now I am recommending it as well. I enjoy stories with empowered characters, be they magically empowered and/or strong of mind. Celia and Marco's abilities are quite different, yet complimentary. Celia's illusions often appear effortless - a shake of her head changes her hair color, a la The Craft; her birds morph from paper to winged and in flight and back to paper - but when considering what her father did to her to strengthen her abilities, one realizes the price she's paid to live this life, far before the ultimate conclusion. Morgenstern's writing is never more lovely than when a character is telling a story, especially the chapter entitled The Wizard in the Tree (pages 171-175), a piece of which I'll now share:
"Secrets have power," Widget begins. "And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them."
This next quote comes from the chapter titled Stories, on page 378:
"Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case."
And, one page turn later, on page 380:
"This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Look around you..."
I realize that bit comes quite close to the end of the book, but it's so gorgeous, I simply had to share it. It doesn't directly refer to any of the book's major events, so please don't feel spoiled. It's not like I'm quoting Amy Pond's final monologue here - thought I will be memorizing that for a future audition. Both that and the aforementioned Wizard in the Tree.
If you like stories with magic of this sort - powers of the mind projected, made into reality, or breathtaking illusions - then you should definitely pick up this book. It could be and has been compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I greatly prefer The Night Circus. If only Morgenstern's name was Gorgenstern, then this book would be shelved next to Christopher Golden's books, making that shelf of fantasy novels even more fantastic. (I wonder what would happen if Tsukiko from The Night Circus met Kitsune from The Veil trilogy...)
"Someone needs to tell those tales."
Oh, and I have a message for Poppet and Widget: If you ever need a sitter for the kittens, I'm available.