I am back, reporting another great read: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
Basically it's about two competing (real) magicians who fall in love. But they're not competing out of free will. And they don't realize until later that only one of them can come out of the competition alive. Also central to the story is the creation of the Night Circus (where the competition takes place), which is untraditional in many ways and seems to have a life on its own.
Here is the summary as described on Goodreads since my own seems grossly inadequate:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.
Maybe it's just me, but it's almost as if Water for Elephants and The Prestige got frisky one night, and The Night Circus is their love child.
Overall I was extremely captivated by this book. The tone is a smidge dark and a bit tragic, but mostly whimsical and enchanting. But what I really loved about it is the writing. Erin Morgenstern has this magical ability to transport you to an entirely different place with her words, with originality brimming from the first page to the last. Her descriptions are stunningly visual, making you feel like you are inside the circus. I'm not normally a fan of wordy prose (and this book definitely abounds in it), yet I was drawn to every detail within it. In many ways, it reads like scenes in a film, with short chapters following a number of different character perspectives, and not always in chronological order.
The circus Morgenstern creates is a unique world of its own, popping up unannounced in cities across the globe. It's not so much a scheduled show as it is a maze of dazzling spectacles and enchantments. As this Washington Post review writes: The animals on the carousel gallop halfway between wood and flesh, a garden of ice grows and blooms, scarves shift color and change into doves, and, most beautifully, poems run down the trunks of trees. If this novel is just cotton candy, it’s cotton candy spun from strands of edible silver. I have to say, this is the first book I've read that is more about the setting than it is about the plot, and somehow it works really, really well.
The romance between Celia and Marco is passion-filled and alluring, though it does take some time to develop, so some may find this a bit slow-going at first. Also it's surprisingly tame in the "physical" sense, with most of the tension built around the "forbidden" aspect of their affair (so lots of "I love you but I can't be with you" type stuff).
To be honest, though I was definitely drawn to the magicians' story and their "star-crossed love" dilemma, I will say their characters were kind of flat, with not much of a character arc to lift them off the page. I found the minor characters (i.e. their mentors, Widget, Poppy, etc.) to be much more memorable and felt they lent more color and depth to the story than anything else.
Also, I think the competition itself could have afforded a bit more dramatic tension. Instead of trying to "outdo" one another, Celia and Marco use their illusions as an outlet for their emotions. So it's not so much a fierce rivalry as it is an amiable exchange of ideas and feelings, leaving us sinking comfortably in our seats rather than suspended on the edge of them (so to speak).
But there is definitely enough conflict built around the fate of their romance and the circus itself that keeps you absorbed in the story and speculating how the competition will end.
Summit Entertainment (the studio responsible for Twilight) has already snatched up the movie rights for this book. Not surprising since this story is driven by spectacle and has so much visual potential. I would be very curious to see Erin Morgenstern's details brought to life, although her writing is so vivid they practically already dance off the page.
Read this book! (Or at least read this excerpt.)