Book Review – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Pages: 401
Published: 13th September 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Trigger warnings: Suicide

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 both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing.

Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

This is as magical and atmospheric a story as you could wish to find, yet also one with a plot that is lacking in substance. A plethora of original, imaginative ideas and whimsical moments are sprinkled throughout from the hands of a writing style that brings delightfully evocative imagery, only for it to offer relatively little else other than a fun sense of escapism.

The concept of the game and the eclectic range of magical powers that are possessed by members of the circus ensure that there is always intrigue, and that the book is quite enjoyable to read. A lot of the characters are an enigma and it is great to see how it covers all aspects of the circus while retaining its mystery, with perspectives from those on the outside such as Herr Thiessen, as well as on the inside.

Told over the course of two timelines, it is clearly intentional from the author to give very little away about the circus itself, and its power. Every time we get a glimpse of the magic that lies within a particular tent, there is a genuine feeling of discovering something and that is what perhaps makes Bailey the most interesting character to follow.

Appearing in the later timeline that primarily takes place in the lead-up to Halloween night in the year 1902, Bailey is the character I connected with the most. His role in the story is not immediately clear but his adoration for the circus and burgeoning relationship with the twins Poppet and Widget is something that was easy to invest in. However, the main narrative focuses on Celia and Marco.

Destined to compete against one another in an enduring game that is never properly explained, they are initially developed well. However, as the book moved on and the game continued to lurk in the background without ever coming to the fore, it was hard to understand as the reader what the point of it all was. There was no build-up and no increase of suspense, to the extent that there was no proper resolution and despite the growing angst of Celia and Marco themselves, any revelations about the game that arrived later on had very little impact.

The main problem is that the game between Celia and Marco should have been at the very forefront of things, but instead what we get is a curious sequence of events, albeit beautifully realised, that do not carry a massive amount of significance. The romance side of it is obvious from quite early on and some characters arguably end up not justifying the level of ambiguity they are given, such as Alexander and Prospero the Enchanter.

One of the more interesting characters is Isobel, who is a bit tragic in some ways and is not treated especially well by the two protagonists. Chandresh was rather more enigmatic and it was hard to gauge what his intentions were for the circus or if he was just being controlled by the superior magic of others, while the whole story of Tara Burgess simply summed up the occasional randomness of this book.

Overall, the most enthralling thing about this book is the brilliantly imagined, immersive setting and the magic contained within it. The writing really does transport you into its mystical world and there are some truly meaningful moments along the way, but the plot itself never really becomes thrilling and the concept of the game falls below expectations, so it has to go down as a mixed bag.

With a degree in theatre, Erin Morgenstern became a bestselling author with The Night Circus which is among the most popular and critically acclaimed books of the previous decade, having won or been nominated for a number of awards.

It took another eight years for her next novel to be published, as The Starless Sea arrived in 2019 and has also received highly positive reviews. Morgenstern lives in Massachusetts.

I had long been intrigued by The Night Circus and I knew going in that it has received a lot of attention and hype in the years since it was published, and that it has divided opinion. I found it a perfectly enchanting story, but the plot just did not quite do it for me.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐


5 thoughts on “Book Review – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

  1. Great review, Stephen. I completely agree with your sentiments about the lack of follow through in the storyline. The descriptions of the circus and the intense magical atmosphere and feeling of awe were beautifully wrought but it ultimately felt so underwhelming! At the time I read it I was so confused by all the 5-star glowing reviews I’d seen of it cos I just didn’t get it. Glad that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way about it! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Dini! It’s good to know we both had similar thoughts on this one. There were some aspects that were truly enchanting and I loved the atmosphere, but the plot amounted to surprisingly little and that made it underwhelming. I’m a bit surprised by all the five-star reviews too lol.

      I hope you are well. Sending love to Indonesia ❤


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