Monday, October 10, 2011


'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern has been reviewed all over the place, and a lot of those reviews have said very similar things- basically that the plot and characters were not stunning, but the setting was amazing. I love an amazing setting, so I went out and read it straight away. The basic premise is not particularly new: two ageless magicians set up a contest between their protege's, the rules are not defined and the participants have no choice in the matter (or knowledge of the other's identity). The setting, which becomes the contest itself, is a circus which involves not just the duelling magicians but a host of other performers, including a contortionist, living statues, acrobats, a fortune teller, and lion tamers. 

The circus is indeed enchanting, but I think the critics are a little harsh on the plot- for the first half at least it unfolds in a similar way to the circus itself, following different tracks without revealing its secrets. It reminded me a little of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', with its 19th century setting, duelling magicians and sense of secrets lying just out of view. It does get a little hazy toward the end, and I'm not sure that all the loose ends add up, but I cared enough about the characters and the circus to get there. I think the circus had the most charm at the beginning as well, but it remains a brilliant creation. The night circus, as its name suggests, opens only at night. It is entirely black and white, tents, costumes and decorations, smells of popcorn and caramel and contains a myriad of different attractions, both real and magical. This is how it opens:

"First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.

All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears."

I love a good literary circus, here are some of my favourites:

The Carnival from The Last Unicorn, sinister and slightly sad, with its enchanted menagerie:

"There were nine wagons, each draped in black, each drawn by a lean black horse, and each baring barred sides like teeth when the wind blew through the black hangings. The lead wagon was driven by a squat old woman, and it bore signs on its shrouded sides that said in big letters; MOMMY FORTUNA'S MIDNIGHT CARNIVAL. And below, in smaller print: Creatures of night, brought to light."

Margaret Mahy short stories: Margaret Mahy has the most amazing fantasy worlds, and her short stories  really capture that. 'The Door in the Air' and 'The Green Fair' are among them.


  1. david_croaker@hotmail.com16/10/11 20:52

    well, that's a disappointment - I had thought of it as a possible Christmas book. There's still Mum though, unless you have already got it for her? Should I read it?

    Has Terry Pratchett done a circus? I can imagine how his would go.
    And was there some sort of carnival in The Hounds of the Morrigan?

    I have just bought a doorstopper of a book by Neal Stephenson "Reamde", which nicely as an anagram on several levels.

  2. Sorry! It is good though, and I haven't bought any Christmas presents yet.

    I can't think of a Terry Pratchett circus, and I don't remember one in Hounds of the Morrigan (there was a castle though?).