Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Starless Sea

“I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space.”

The Starless Sea is a triumph of imagination and wordcraft. It’s ethereal and fantastical and mysterious and breathtakingly bizarre yet beautiful in a way I’ve never known any author but Erin Morgenstern to manage. There is absolutely no way to review this book and do it justice. I went in blind, and I think going in not knowing what to expect is the best way to read this book. It’s an immersive experience and different to any other book I have ever read – in the best way. If you enjoyed Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, you should love this book.

As with The Night Circus, what makes the novel is the writing. Morgenstern writes in a lyrical, almost whimsical fashion and manages to create improbable yet incredibly vivid stories you want to be real. In most books, long passages of description are dull and pull you out of the story – in Morgenstern’s books, they make the story. I understand that it isn’t a writing style that suits everyone, but for those who’ve always longed for something more, for a world bigger than it is, for the improbable and supernatural and a little sprinkle of magic – this is the book for you. Morgenstern writes for the dreamers. The Night Circus was like a dream. The Starless Sea is like a cross between a dream and the world’s most immersive video game, with hidden references to every notable work of literature published in the last few hundred years.

The novel centers around Zachary Ezra Rawlins – full name emphasised – an Emerging Media Studies student and the sweetest, most delightful human being of all time. He’s an avid reader and video gamer and beyond all, a dreamer. He believes in the possibility of More. Zachary is the sort of character anyone would want to be friends with, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him on his journey. His friendship with Kat is truly heartwarming and would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun”

The other characters are each delightful in their own way – the wonderful Kat, mysterious Dorian, enigmatic Mirabel, sweet Eleanor, intriguing Allegra – but, my fellow readers, I will leave them for you to discover. You only get to discover this book for the first time once, and I don’t want to do anything to minimise that experience for you.

The only tiny, tiny quibble I have with this book is its ending. I don’t love it quite as much as I love The Night Circus because the ending wasn’t quite as satisfying to me. That being said, it’s still an excellent ending – it just didn’t ring the note that I wanted.

Enjoy your first journey to The Starless Sea. Someday I hope to see you on the shore.

 

Published by Harvill Secker / Vintage
Hardback: 9th November 2019
Paperback: 6th August 2020

Book Review: The Starless Sea

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Starless Sea is a story about stories. It explores how they are created and the impact they have when shared. It is about choices and their repercussions. It is about ongoing ownership and interpretations of tales.

The reader is prompted to consider if their reality is a fragile construct made from attitude and perception – what is believed and why, rather than other possibilities.

“A multitude of seekers looking for things they do not have names for and finding them in stories written and unwritten and in each other.”

There are many stories within this story. They come from, amongst other things, books and conversation. Many questions are asked that only multiply as responses are provided. In life, there is rarely only one answer. Our stories grow like vines, throwing out tendrils that weave through each other or set off in new directions when disseminated.

The protagonist is a young man named Zachary Ezra Rawlins. He is the son of a fortune-teller. When he was eleven years old he discovered a beautiful rendition of a door on a wall outside his mother’s shop. It looked real enough to be three-dimensional and yet he chose not to try to open it. That, he believed, would have been impossible, the idea childish and therefore rejected.

Fourteen years later Zachary checks out a book from the fiction section of his university library. He is a post grad student of emerging media studies – specialising in video games – but also an avid reader. The book is very old, donated from a private collection several decades previously. It includes a tale of a boy, the son of a fortune-teller, who finds a door painted on a wall that he chooses not to open. Zachary is inexorably drawn inside a story he is somehow a part of without his knowledge.

“Anyone who enters the room affects it. Leaves an impression upon it even if it is unintentional.”

Zachary needs to know how an old story can contain precise details of an episode from his own life that happened long after the tale was published. He searches for clues as to the origins of the book, and in doing so discovers he has attracted the attention of a secretive society. There are recurring symbols: bee, key, sword, crown, heart, and feather. There are many doors to be opened – choices to be made – with few clues as to what lies beyond – what happens next.

Chapters telling Zachary’s story are alternated with stories from the books he reads and then fragments from pages torn out and refashioned, often into origami stars. Stars appear to be the baddies here, although where each character stands in the good or bad spectrum is only slowly made clear. Gradually the tendrils weave together and back stories are revealed.

The structure is similar to a role playing video game with immersive quests wound around rich narrative and detailed descriptions. The numerous side quests required some flicking back to reread earlier chapters for added clarity.

The heart of the setting is a vast underground library where cats roam free and guest bedrooms provide sanctuary. The undulating layers of plot and recurring characters are deliciously meta. Zachary is taken to the library and discovers a labyrinth with a strange history. Deciding who to trust from amongst those requesting his participation will determine the role he plays in his life’s game.

Ongoing tension is carefully balanced to remain compelling but the story never feels rushed. The writing is more literary than thriller with a voice that was a joy to read. Its style has a timeless feel – fable like – yet harnesses many contemporary and cultural references. There are regular sprinklings of droll humour.

Pivotal events are described with tastes, textures and smells as well as emotions – recognition that memories are triggered by all the senses. Time and fate, whose importance is so often disregarded, are granted importance in plot progression. Much use is made of metaphors, although the definition of reality and how much this matters is regularly questioned.

Every story requires an ending and what is offered here works well. It was, however, just a little drawn out with a denouement a tad sweeter than my tastes.

This is a lengthy book but one that never feels bloated. Rather there is interest and meaning to be found in each direction taken. Cross referencing across side stories required attention to detail, much of which will likely have been missed on this first read through. I am confident it will continue to reveal new facets over numerous rereads.

Any Cop?: A strong and highly imaginative work of immersive fantasy fiction. Story construction will henceforth be viewed through a more vivid lens.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus UK

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a glorious assault on the senses. Full of sumptuous, descriptive prose that reads like poetry in places, it takes the reader on a fabulous journey through time where nothing can be taken for granted. Just as visitors to the circus wind through seemingly never ending pathways and tents filled with wonder, sometimes exploring new vistas, sometimes criss crossing back along well trodden paths; so the plot twists and turns but never disappoints as it develops it’s characters and exposes just enough of it’s secrets to elicit a gasp of delight or fear as the reader guesses at where they could be going next. It is dream like yet deliciously believable in so many ways.

The book is at heart a love story with allegorical undertones. The writing is rich but never cloying, the author’s imagination both original and delightful. Nothing is easy for the protagonists as they slowly decipher the secrets behind the lives that have been chosen for them, yet this is not written as a tragedy but as a lesson in hope. The lessons that they learn about how an individual’s actions impact all around are universal.

I particularly liked the constant references to how most do not take notice of what is happening right in front of them, how most will not believe what they see if they have been conditioned to think in a certain way.

I read this book over two days, having to put it down from time to time to absorb the imagery and think through the latest nugget of understanding as another layer in the mystery was peeled off. It is not a difficult read but should not be skimmed. By allowing the story to permeate I became absorbed in the tale, feeling satisfied if somewhat bereft when the book was concluded.

I am told that it has received mixed reviews from readers; I do not understand why. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the fantasy world of the Night Circus, in the idea that magic could exist and be learned. Who can truly say what in life is illusion and what is real? Those who have not read this book have a treat in store should they choose to indulge.