Book Review: THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

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Notes On Diversity:
Magic might be thick in the air at the Cirque Des Reves, but diversity is thin on the ground.

In the whole of this long, meandering book–a book brimming with characters, a book that stretches across time and distance–there are, perhaps, two characters who are explicitly characters of color (Chandresh, who is half-Indian, and Tsukiko1, who is Japanese). Interestingly, both Chandresh and Tsukiko also happen to play double-diversity-duty: they are also The Night Circus‘s only canonically queer characters, as well.

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why did the people of color *also* have to be the only queer people? Who knows!

As far as I could tell, there were no characters with a disability. The closest we get to discussions of class and poverty is with Marco’s backstory, which is written in broad strokes and passed by quite quickly. There is one interesting and quite telling moment where Marco’s shadowy-named mentor, Alexander H-., mentions that he went looking for a student in an orphanage in the first place on the presumption that the student (Marco) would have a better life at his hands, no matter the consequences, than he would have had should he have been left destitute in the orphanage.2

I’ll get into this in more depth in the review, but I also felt that many of the women characters were not written with as much depth or centricity as the male characters.

Generally speaking, this is book full of lovely language and striking images and wonder. But it is not a book much interested in diversity.

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diversity magic was not allowed at the night circus

Review:
In some lucky towns, the Cirque Des Reves springs up unannounced  and opens from dusk until dawn. The circus is black and white – the costumes, the great white-flamed bonfire, the painted dirt, even the food. It is a world of shadow and light wreathed in unknown, unseen magic. The circus is the sight of a contest: the beautiful young illusionist, Celia Bowen, is no illusionist at all. The magic the performs is real. The strange and wondrous creations in the tents are real, too. Some of them are hers, and some of them are her competitors: the circus creator’s unassuming assistant, Marco Alisdair. The pair of them are locked in this competition, and bound to the circus, but neither of them know what they are competing for, or how it will end, or why they were chosen to compete in the first place.

There are many who adore The Night Circus. It is a lovely book. Morgenstern is an entrancing writer, and the plot is threaded together very well. All the loose ends are woven together by the end of the book; there are no extraneous variables. The pacing is such that you have to be floored with Morgenstern’s language and description, or captivated by the story itself, to wait it out to see how the apparently disparate elements of the book unify by the end, but Morgenstern as a writer is sure-handed enough that I felt certain that they would all come together in the end. If you are not engaged with either her style or the plot of the book, though, your patience with the slowly weaving tapestry of The Night Circus may falter.

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like this, but, you know, a book

This was a book I wanted very much to like and didn’t. I appreciated Morgenstern’s skill, and she has it in spades. But for all her luxurious description of the outputs of Celia and Marco’s magic, I ended up with very little understanding of what it actually was to be a magician. For a book ostensibly about two highly talented (if sequestered) magicians, there was very little about the magic itself. What did it feel like to use it? How did it work? What were its limits and scope? How many magicians were out there, and how did that make the world of The Night Circus tangible different from our own? If there were no answers to these questions, why make Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair magicians in the first place? Why not make them, I don’t know, architects, instead?

Really, this is not a book so much about magic. Magic is the backdrop here, sketchily worked out (but very beautifully written about), and the story is about a pair of star-crossed lovers. And this is fine, or rather would have been, if Marco had not been emotionally manipulative and deeply creepy as a character. The love story as it was portrayed was very strange, since it seemed written to be this sweeping grand romantic thing. And yet–Marco was a terrible, callous, desperate person. And Celia was little more than a phantom. We get very little of her in terms of interiority. Their love story is told more than shown. It is obvious that Morgenstern can write a natural, sweet love story, because there is once in the book–Bailey and Poppet–but the central narrative focuses on Marco’s fixation with Celia and Celia’s acquiescence to it, which is passed off here as love.

Again, this is a beautifully written book, and masterfully structured. But it didn’t work for me. The ending was too pat, and the central relationship was too hollow. For a book where the main characters should have been inside the magic, the worldbuilding felt half-realized. The entire book felt too coy by half.

3 stars


1Tsukiko was, to me, by far the most interesting character in the book. She was also one of the few characters who became more interesting as the book went on instead of less interesting. I kept wishing the book had been about her instead.

2When Marco’s mentor said this, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever been poor. It struck me as the kind of things a person who had always lived comfortably says about the presumed horrors of being poor, the unknown shock of lack. I actually can’t imagine that knowing the arcane wonders would be worth unwittingly losing one’s freedom forever. Self-determination is constrained when living in poverty, this is true, but at least there’s a semblance of it.

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