Book Review

The Night Circus: A Lesson in Illusion

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Prestige. I’ve seen the movie about ten times and I’m still riveted by it.

I won’t spoil anything here (because you should watch it yourself), but the main plot is about two magicians whose hate and jealousy towards one another drives them into a unhealthy and deadly competition.

The enrapturing way this competition plays out is one of the reasons I picked up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I knew that the story wouldn’t be the same, but I thought the competition aspect would still be exciting, especially since the novel deals with real magic. I was hoping for the same level of mystery and suspense, just with more angsty lovins’ instead of angsty killin’.

Our two dueling magicians are Marco and Celia, who are instructed separately by their cold and distant teachers. As children they are stripped away of their agency and bound to a decades-long competition.

Oh, also their teachers forgot to mention that the duel is ‘last man standing’. Dicks.

Without the knowledge of the hidden stakes (and the identity of their competitor) they must continue to compete in a special venue built for them, Le Cirque des Rêves.

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I actually don’t care for circuses, so imagine my surprise when I thought the circus was the best part of this novel.

Morgenstern is definitely a illusionist when it comes to words (not so much with story… we’ll get to that later) and I was blown away by her descriptions of the circus. She built an amazing world that is both dreamy and vivid. I was so seduced by her descriptions that I got pissed. Ugh! Why can’t Le Cirque des Rêves be real!

As much as I wanted to stay in this dream world of black and white the plot holes and the disappointments of the main story started to seep through and poison it.

Before I continue, I want to note that this novel is 100% style over substance. For those who care more about detailed imagery and world-building, I can understand why you would love this book. There are plenty of high reviews for The Night Circus and I understand the spell this book put them under.

So, as always, take these criticisms with a grain of salt. As much as I wanted to give The Night Circus a high score, I just couldn’t get over some major issues with the novel.

One of my major disappointments was the lack of suspense. As soon as the competition begins the momentum is lost pretty quickly. Interestly enough, the purpose for the Circus doesn’t seem as important as the Circus itself. I just found the whole experience anti-climatic.

Attention is also taken away because more time was given to a romance that didn’t seem necessary. Whoa whoa whoa, hear me out.

From the beginning I’m on Celia and Marco’s side, since they are bound to this competition without their consent. So I don’t need them falling in love for me to be on board.

But what about the romance and angst lovins’ Tasheena? Maybe I just have a cold heart, but I don’t buy the whole ‘we are super totes in luv’ that these characters seem to experience. They meet once, where Marco falls in insta-lust (for years) and then they have one evening together before they fall ‘head over heels’. I’m supposed to believe that they have the greatest love of all time? They spend 5% of the book together. I understand about have a strong connection with someone, but this romance didn’t feel earned.

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Now the competition (more like an endurance test) binds them together, and this powerful connection is alluded to by another character but not delved into. Are they really in love, or is it just the magic and years of the competition that tie them together?

Since Morgenstern decided to spend more time on style than substance, I have a lot of unanswered questions. Also a rushed third act didn’t help.

My biggest question was probably what really broke the illusion for me. I could have happily walked around in ignorant bliss, but this one question kept bugging me.

Why?

Why does this competition exist? What do the two instructors have to gain from destroying so many lives? Why have it ‘last man standing’?

Throughout the novel it’s clear that the two instructors have different ideologies when it comes to what’s more important, natural talent or intense studying. The competition is to prove a point. One they have been trying to prove for centuries as one of the instructors has lost multiple students to this duel.

Celia’s teacher is the typical hammy villain, so this weak justification works for him, but not for Marco’s teacher, Alexander, who is far more complex than his counterpart. At the end of the book, Alexander tries to give some reason for this centuries-long competition between the instructors.

But the reason he gives is just half-baked laziness. Alexander might as well shrug his shoulders and say it’s ‘for shits and giggles’. There was a purpose centuries ago (a weak one at that), but there was just no reason for it to continue other than bragging rights.

I know some of my readers are walking around Le Cirque des Rêves shouting ‘I DON’T CARE’ and running deep into the bright tents of the night.

I get it. Morgenstern paints a beautiful picture. I just wish there was real magic behind this illusion.
Score: 5/10

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