Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Night Circus

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
Recommended Ages: 13+

When an author's debut novel is as wonderful and successful as this 2011 Locus Award winning fantasy, experience predicts one of two outcomes. Either it will prove but the beginning of an exciting career for book lovers to follow with breathless interest, or it will go down in the records as another outstanding freak of creative brilliance that came as if from nowhere, and remains without any follow-up. I hope the fact its author hasn't published another title in the four years doesn't augur the latter outcome. I would prefer to see more by the creator of this superb and magical book.

The main action happens in a marvelous circus built not under one tent, but in a complex collection of tents. This circus arrives without warning and departs just as suddenly, seeming to materialize out of nowhere and disappear into nowhere again. It opens only at night when the weather is fine, and all its attractions share a stylish palate of blacks, whites and grays. Its entrance is dominated by a continuously transforming clock, its main courtyard by a cauldron full of pure white fire. It features animal acts, a fortune teller, a contortionist, a conjurer, and many other strange and wonderful things, all carried out in virtual silence except for the gasps and cheers of the crowd. Only those who follow the circus around - and there is a growing society of those who do - and those who visit it every few years when it passes through their area are apt to notice that no one in the circus ever seems to age, except the red-haired twins who were born at the moment the circus opened. New attractions open, or perhaps it's just that one never has time to see them all, but the whole show seems suspended in a time out of time, not to mention a world out of this world.

What even the members of the circus themselves do not suspect is that they are all playthings in a game that has been going on for untold ages, a game between two powerful magicians whose motives remain unclear until the end of this book. The circus has been created mainly as the venue for the latest match in this game, pitting two unsuspecting opponents who have been groomed for a contest of magic since childhood. Celia Bowen is the daughter of a stage illusionist who devotes most of his craft to making feats of actual magic look like exquisite tricks. Marco Alisdair is the orphan apprentice of the elusive Man in the Gray Suit, whose main concern seems to be keeping the knowledge of magic secret. Bound together from their youth by a doom neither understands, Marco and Celia fall desperately in love before they recognize the game will not end until at least one of them is dead.

As the demands of the game wears on Celia's endurance and Marco's willingness to play, strange and disturbing things begin to happen in and around the circus. Death and madness begin to stalk those close to the show. Jealousy and heartbreak throw the circus's magical harmonics out of alignment. The possibility grows to a near certainty that everyone in the circus may be swept away unless something can be done. And just when the circus represents one young man's chance to be truly happy, it all begins to fall apart. Prepare for some lip-biting as the tension builds to a powerful and revealing climax.

Morgenstern says on her website that she started this book as a project for National Novel Writing Month, though it went through a lot of reworking before it reached its final form. Is it possible more people like her are out there with just one great novel hidden inside them, waiting for the right stimulus to push it out? Could it be just the result of a chance meeting between a fertile idea and the right amount of discipline imposed from outside? Or is The Night Circus the opening gambit of a power player in the fantasy lit arena? I hope it's the latter, because I don't want the magic to end. And that's the precise word for the vibrancy of this book's characters, the urgency of its storyline, the scenic lyricism of the Le Cirque des Rêves, and its delicious blend of mystery, romance, suspense, and the bizarre. It's a tragedy that somehow doesn't leave you feeling down at the end; it's a dark and terrible vision of magic that nevertheless remains innocent of occult content; it's an altogether grown-up book that contains hardly anything I would hesitate to share with kids; and it's a story of blockbuster entertaining power that contains the seeds of its own fandom in the form of the red-scarfed Rêveurs who love the Circus of Dreams as much as you soon will.

This book invites comparison with the Harry Potter books in a number of ways, but the most obvious of them is that its U.S. audiobook version is narrated by Jim Dale. His vocal talent brought out a lot of the life in each of the characters and breathed a scent of awe and delight on the passages describing the circus. I don't know that I've heard him read before, but I'm interested now to hear what he did with the magical world of J. K. Rowling.

No comments: