The Night Circus

Author(s): Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Pages: 400
ISBN: 9781846555237
ASIN: 184655523X
Release Date: 15th September 2011


Erin Morgenstern's debut novel "The Night Circus" has been somewhat unfairly called the natural successor to the Harry Potter series of books. There will certainly be some overlap of the target readership, but with a fleeting sex scene (more of this later) Morgenstern has deliberately narrowed the demographic so it is unlikely it could be considered ideal toddler bedtime reading.

The plot revolves around a magical touring circus staged over the final years of the nineteenth century and the commencement of the twentieth. The circus mysteriously appears overnight and contains a bewildering assortment of tents with exotic, obscure and mind-bending acts; the circus itself and attractions within are magically managed by mental manipulation of the protagonists – their thought process keeps the stupefying visual spectacle running like clockwork.

In reality, the purpose of the circus is more sinister than first appears. It is a platform for a macabre game instigated by two feuding sorcerers who have installed their own puppets into the circus. Both are as old as the hills and have fought since time immemorial, but the stakes are raised for this game. Prospero commits his own daughter Celia whilst Alexander plucks a young boy Marco from an orphanage to do his bidding. Neither know their opponent initially, the rules of the game are unclear and the criteria for ending the game is not explained. Both Celia and Marco are fearful how the game will pan out....

This leads to the book's first problem – it is obvious and predictable that the two will fall in love. What is less obvious is why Celia would find Marco attractive. Celia learned her magic through practical application, she is outward facing, vivacious, beautiful and gregarious. Marco learned his magic through tortuous study of text books, he is academic, insular, devoid of personality and so vain he uses magic to improve his looks. It may seem churlish to criticise the plausibility of a book predicated on fantasy but a truly immersive reading experience demands the credibility of human emotion.

The second problem is the solitary sex scene which thankfully extends to no more than three-quarters of a page. There is no reason for its inclusion other than to delineate the book as adult fiction, but worse it is poorly written. Any sex scene that concludes with the clichéd and execrable "they came together" should be exorcised by a well-meaning editor long before the manuscript arrives at the printers.

The book's prose however is exemplary and Morgenstern paints a wondrous landscape where the circus comes alive. It contains multiple timelines, itself not a device I'm entirely comfortable with, yet in this circumstance it works as Morgenstern cleverly steers us towards the denouement, tieing up the loose strands as she goes. Aside from the points mentioned above, this is a joyous book which will last for many years in the reader's memory.