Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Night Circus (Vintage Magic) Paperback – October 6, 2016 by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage Classics)

At the urging of a friend, I decided to give this book a read through, especially considering it's now become a best seller, with a movie deal in the works. I read a few reviews of this ahead of time, and it seems a lot of people tend to be torn on certain aspects of the book, and after having read it myself, I can agree to some of these points (but more on that in a moment).

Around the turn of the century, a mysterious circus begins making appearances around the world. It only opens at night, and many of the acts straddle the line between fantasy and reality; making it hard to tell if the acts are complex illusions or actual magic. In the center of all this are our two main characters. Ceila is the daughter of a magician named Prospero...a man who can perform REAL magic, and Marco was once an orphan who was taken in by a mysterious man (sometimes called "Alexander", but is mostly referred to as "the man in the grey suit"), and also taught the ways of real magic. Prospero and the Man in the Grey Suit decide to hold a contest, with Ceila and Marco acting as their champions, and the "Circus of Dreams" being used as the playing field. What the two magicians don't count on is their two students falling in love, and both Ceila and Marco must find a way to escape the contest they've been forced into, while also protecting the circus folk that've become unknowingly tangled up in their predicament--the most notable being Bailey, an enthusiastic fan of the circus, and a pair of clairvoyant twins named Poppet and Widget.

***POssible Spoilers Ahead***

Let's start off with the bad. This is something that many reviewers have pointed out, and it's something I strongly agree with. The two main characters, Ceila and Marco, are so incredibly flat, I found it really hard to sympathize with them at all. It's a shame, because the beginning chapters with them as children started off really promising, but once they come into adulthood, they become really boring. They've become so wrapped up in their contest (and later romance) that they don't really seem to have any sort of lives or hopes and dreams beyond just what they've been bred/trained to do. We learn next to nothing about what their likes/dislikes are, and their reactions to things are so wooden, it's like they're robots. Both of them have been abused by their parents/teachers, but neither exhibit any sort of trauma or repercussions of it. At one point, Ceila talks about her father slicing her fingers with a knife, and she talks about it as if this is perfectly normal. Later, she stabs her own hand, to which Marco just raises an eyebrow. Whether said person can magically heal themselves afterward or not, such an act should STILL elicit SOME kind of grossed out and/or horrified response. I get that these people aren't exactly normal (being magic and all), but a little more emotion would be nice. Their "romance" is even more forced. Supposedly, the two hang out with each other for a number of years (the book does ALOT of time skips), but we barely get to see those interactions. Any small talk that would've developed them and their relationship more is glossed over in favor of them just building new circus tents as gifts to each other and saying "I love you" a lot (without really knowing WHY they do).

Bailey and the twins, on the other hand, were MUCH more developed and likeable. Bailey is torn between his responsibilities to his family farm, and wanting to go on an adventure, and his eventual budding friendship with Poppet and Widget is adorable. And the twins' clairvoyance (one can see a person's past, the other can see the future), proves to be a mixed blessing, as sometimes, their abilities help them avoid trouble, while other times, they can see danger coming, yet have no power to stop it, and struggle to keep their home at the circus alive, even when they realize there's much more powerful forces at work around them. It really makes me wish that these three were the main characters instead, or we would've had a much more interesting story on our hands.

Which brings me to the plot. If you're careful to read the dates at the beginning of each chapter, you'll quickly figure out that the story jumps around in time a lot. We see certain events out of order, so as not to spoil other plot points later on, and many of the events take place from various viewpoints. While that style didn't bother me at all, the plot itself is more than confusing. From what I could figure out (or assume), Prospero and the Man in the Grey Suit are, in reality, two ancient wizards who are constantly trying to one-up each other, but rather than duke it out themselves, they hire/convince/trick other people into representing them, and apparently, these "contests" have been going on for centuries. But none the less, everything is left extremely vague. The two people who have all the answers tell the audience next to nothing, but rather than make the book more mysterious, it just makes it that much harder to understand (at least for me). The rules of the contest, or even WHY they're even doing all this is never fully or properly explained. We never find out just who they are exactly, and the magic system is never given much detail to how it works. Even in a fantasy, you have to establish certain ground rules, with how the magic works and what the limitations are, and no definite information is presented here. The characters discuss hypnotism, illusions, levitation, mind reading, and other magic stuff as if the audience knows what they're talking about, and we don't. (Or at least, I don't.) Their "training montages" as children details how they grew up under the iron fist of their teachers, when this could've been used as a way to explain the base rules of the magic system and how these people do what they do. (The closest we get to a solid explanation is a fairy tale that Widget tells at one point.) Keeping all the most important details a mystery doesn't make the plot suspenseful, it just makes it confusing. (Or maybe I'm just some uncultured heathen who can't see the bigger picture here. If you guys can figure out/explain this plot better, feel free to comment and clue me in.)

**End of Spoilers**

However, the one really great bright spot in all this is the setting itself. The circus is so well described and developed, I wish that it existed in real life. From ice gardens, to cloud mazes, to stargazing trolley rides, each tent and act is part illusion, part magical, with a grand atmosphere that makes use of all the senses, including smell (a sense that's very underutilized, as one of the characters points out). Much like Bailey, it's a place I'd love to run away to if I could.

And that's what makes me very torn on the overall rating of this book. I'd actually rank this at 2 1/2 stars, but since Amazon can't do half stars, I rounded it to three. I think the author got so wrapped up in the world building that the main characters and the story were left to suffer. I love the circus setting itself, as well as the idea of two magicians duking it out and disguising their real magic powers as average illusions....but the idea could've been executed better. As it stands, it's a confusing plot with either wooden characters that get too much focus, or enjoyable characters that receive too little focus. If you're into steampunk and/or magic/fantasy, feel free to give this one a shot, but this is one book I probably won't pick up again. If nothing else, the magical circus is the best part.

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