The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

Anchor Books, 2012

516 pages

When my daughter was born, two very dear friends came to see us in the hospital. It was Christmastime, so they brought my present with them: a copy of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I had not heard of it, but our friends were emphatic that I would love it, and they were right.

I got through it quickly – thanks to frequent, slow nursing sessions – and I was heartbroken by the fact that there was no followup to the cliffhanger ending (which I won’t spoil for you here). It remains the best fantasy novel I’ve read outside Tolkien.

So imagine how thrilled I was to discover a read-alike: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I picked up Morgenstern’s novel last month, when I visited the library on a desperate hunt for reading material. I was about to fly cross-country on a business trip, and I had realized the day before departure that I had “nothing to read.” (Just on a side note: I should confess that me having “nothing to read” is like some folks having “nothing to wear.”)

The Night Circus was perched on a shelf, under a sign declaring it “recommended by our librarians.” It was of sufficient length for the trip, and the premise sounded fascinating. So I took it home, along with some fallback selections.

I was hooked from page one. Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it’s the story of two students whose teachers use them as proxies in a centuries-old magical conflict. Celia, the daughter of one magician, and Marco, the protege of the other, are bound from an early age to pit their skills against one another within the confines of a magical circus. Celia serves as the circus’ illusionist and travels with the show. Along with performing her own act, she uses her magic to build other attractions within the venue. Marco also magically adds to the circus, but from his home base in London.

Then, several years after the contest begins, the two antagonists meet face-to-face and fall in love. First, they collaborate with each other, building some of the circus’ most stunning attractions. But eventually, that’s not enough – they want out of the contest so they can become full partners, both in love and magic. That is when they learn what is really at stake: not only their own lives, but those of everyone connected with the circus.

I love the book primarily for its richness of detail and the way Morgenstern weaves together reality-as-we-know-it and the magical reality of the world she has so deftly created. This, the tight and unique plotting, and the orientation toward characters over action (always my favorite slant) are what make Night Circus an apt readalike for Strange & Norrell.

Granted, Morgenstern is not quite as skilled as Clarke – her ending is tidier but, in my opinion, trite and much less satisfying. And, though her narrative voice is similarly strong, it’s far too American for the book’s primarily British setting.

But Morgenstern’s novel has one thing Clarke’s novel is lacking: a strong female protagonist (though Arabella Strange could possibly qualify as a Super Secondary).

Celia is really the book’s main character, with Marco serving as a close secondary. Aside from getting more page time, she’s also more central to the plot – and to the circus itself.

And what a character she is. She has innate magical ability that stems not just from her parentage but also from her fierce temperament. She is the more powerful of the two contestants, capable of both more dramatic and more complex magic than Marco can execute.

She is the one, we ultimately learn, who holds the circus together. If she loses focus, it literally falls apart. So she is the one who must make a way out for herself and Marco, if she can. She is the primary mover, creator, and problem-solver. In short, she’s the heroine of the book.

Even better, there are some strong female secondaries to support her: the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko, Marco’s former lover Isobel, and the accomplished costume designer Tante Padva. They’re all flawed characters – as is Celia – but each is courageous and strong and creative.

It’s wonderful to read a book with so many self-assured women in it, especially when that book turns out to be a love story. I’ve read far too many books where, once the heroine falls in love, she loses her verve and becomes a passive pawn in need of rescuing. The Night Circus, by contrast, is a story where love only deepens the heroine’s strength and power.

The next time you’re in search of a good, fat book to spend some serious time with, I highly recommend it.

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