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TBTS Reviews: The Night Circus

September 21, 2011

In the business of selling books, there’s still a refreshing amount of autonomy at the retail level. Some books arrive with well-established demand and the full weight of the publisher’s marketing machine behind them, but most arrive unheralded, one more entry on the list, and it’s up to booksellers to decide what to do with them. We get advance reader’s copies months in advance, check them out, write something encouraging back to the publishers and try to find likely buyers once the book comes out. One impressed bookseller might sell ten copies in his or her local store above and beyond what might normally happen. A particularly aggressive or enterprising one might sell fifty or more over time. When you impress an entire store, though, something happens. Something changes in the air. Your book’s title is on every set of lips. People pass your book around and encourage (in practice, the more correct word is perhaps “badger”) each other to read it. Release day becomes an anticipated event. You have helpers, an army of them, and if you’re a first-time novelist, you have done the impossible.

The Night Circus, the debut from Erin Morgenstern, is all about doing the impossible. It’s a book about wizards that manages to be utterly unlike Harry Potter or even Lev Grossman’s hipper The Magicians. It’s a love story that manages to avoid romance-novel cliche or Twilight breathlessness. It is, at heart, a genre piece, but with serious literary merit. It is something special, and I have waited months for the chance to tell you about it. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.

At the heart of the story is a bet between two old rivals. They may be the only magicians on earth, the only people who know that reality as we know it is malleable. The bet has been repeated many times before, a game where the pieces are also the stakes. Each magician trains a student from a young age and the students are set on a path toward one another. The students, a boy named Marco and a girl named Celia, the daughter of one of the players, are raised for one purpose only – to learn magic. They do, brilliantly, and their paths finally cross as young adults in the service of a most peculiar enterprise dreamed up by a very wealthy man. A circus, unlike any other, that opens only at night, travels in secret, and arrives without warning.

Everything about the circus is strange and wondrous. Called Les Cirque du Rêves, the Circus of Dreams, it is decorated only in black and white, right down to the performers and the very ground on which it rests. The visitors assume what they see is the product of ingenious illusion, and go along with the entertainment, but the engine that drives the circus is real magic – magic provided by Marco and Celia, without the knowledge of any but themselves, and at first independently, each assuming they are the only one. When they finally become aware of each other, it is as if a picture suddenly becomes complete. When Marco and Celia fall in love, only then do they learn the stakes of the game, and that the game can only end with one of them alive.

Morgenstern is quite the crafter. Her prose is luminous, lapidary, rarely drawing attention to itself but fully illuminating its subject. Her touch is light and subtle and reminds me of another favorite of the last year, Aimee Bender. Her setting is masterfully drawn and engrossing. The circus feels alive and strange, a real garden of surprise and delight. Every new detail feels like a gift, a treat as special as if the reader were visiting the circus in person. It is exactly the kind of place that draws a widespread, devoted following – in the book, a society forms around the circus, a sort of high-class fanclub of people dressing in black and white save for one red flower, the rêveurs or dreamers, as they call themselves. Somehow, Morgenstern avoids the obvious trap of letting the setting overwhelm the characters, but they stand on their own remarkably well, coming fully to life in their setting instead of paling against it. Above all, the relationship between Celia and Marco is as compelling as it needs to be to drive the story to its literally and figuratively magical climax. The story resolves in a way that is both neat and satisfying, and though it involves the application of a serious amount of magic, only the poor of imagination could argue the groundwork hasn’t been laid for it.

The Night Circus is a book to be experienced rather than simply read. It does what great stories aspire to – it transports you to another time and place, and while you are in its pages you are wholly there, yourself a reveur, a vistor to the circus watching the story unfold. I was – I am – obsessed with this book. I can’t recall the last time I felt this excited for a book’s release, not even for A Dance With Dragons, even though I’d waited years for it. It’s a special kind of pleasure, a bookseller’s pleasure, because having read it, I couldn’t wait to introduce people to it. It’s the kind of book that will pass from hand to hand faster than an outbreak of the common cold. The movie rights have already been sold, and I expect it to shoot up the bestseller charts, and it’ll be a pleasure to see it there. In closing, I’ll pay The Night Circus the highest compliment I know as a reader: as soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again.

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