Speculative Chic Book Club: The Night Circus

Welcome to the Speculative Chic Book Club! Each month, we invite you to join us in reading a book that is voted on by YOU, our readers. We’re still experimenting with the format, so this month we’re just doing a review followed by your discussion in the comments!

The Night Circus (2011)
Written by: Erin Morgenstern
Pages: 401 (Kindle)
Publisher: Anchor

Why I nominated this for book club: I was sticking with the NaNoWriMo theme, and this was written over three separate NaNoWriMos.

Premise:

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.

Book club is intended for those who have already finished the book, so there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t finished the book yet, check back! We’ll still be here.


Discussion:

I’m not entirely sure how to begin discussing a book that is entirely about atmosphere and only a little about plot. This book is the sum of its parts, and the largest part of this story is the circus, and the circus distorts time and space. This story is also a bit about these two magicians who are pitted against each other, except it isn’t really like that, and if you go into this novel expecting some kind of Harry Potter-style magical battle, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

For one thing, there’s only the vaguest descriptions of how the magic works. Celia’s training is all about experience, and Marco’s is all about knowledge, but that’s about all you know, really. Could anyone learn to do what Marco does if they read enough books? Who knows? The vagueness of the mechanics of the magic probably help to make this story more accessible to people who don’t read fantasy a lot, but as a seasoned fantasy reader, I’m not sure it does the story any favors.

There is a circus, and there are two magicians, and there’s an entire host of people also dependent on the circus, who aren’t aware they’re supporting characters in the battle. What’s that inspirational quote? Everyone’s the hero of their own story? Not these poor saps. I kind of wonder what the turnover rate was after the battle ends and Bailey takes over.

In general, I’m not sure that the characters are this book’s strong point. The secondary and tertiary characters were, as previously noted, very much only there to serve as pawns in the contest. Sure, some of them had deeper motivations, like Isobel the fortune teller who was also in love with Marco, but none of them felt like people outside of their relation to the circus. The main characters were only slightly better, but again, mostly defined in their relationship to each other and the game they were playing. Even their declarations of love felt like they came out of left field. You could argue that they’d been flirting with each other for a while through their creations, and that’s valid, but then I don’t feel like enough time was really spent on their reactions to the creations.

Going back to Bailey though, I don’t know if I was supposed to read anything into the fact that the new circus anchor is named Bailey, but I couldn’t stop thinking about going to Barnum & Bailey’s as a child, exactly one time, on my fifth birthday.

There were quite a few things in it that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Tara’s death, for instance, or Chandresh trying to kill the man in the grey suit and killing Friedrich instead. Was Tara lead there? Was she drawn out onto the tracks by the man in the grey suit because she started asking questions? Why did Friedrich have to die, when he hadn’t questioned anything at all?

The book is very atmospheric, sensory, and for all that, very lovely. The timelines shift around, almost like you’re wandering through the Night Circus yourself, picking up threads of the tale as you head in and out of tents along the path. This worked most of the time, but not until after I picked up the rhythm of the story. For that reason, I wish I’d been able to read this book in bigger chunks than the sometimes bite sized pieces I had to take this week.

Still, it mostly lived up to the hype that it’s gotten since it was published, and I’m glad it was voted for this month.

In Conclusion: At the end of the day, this book is about a feeling. I can’t really describe what the feeling actually is, because I think it might be different for everyone. I leave you, instead, with this: 

“Is it not that bad to be trapped somewhere, then? Depending on where you’re trapped?”

“I suppose it depends on how much you like the place you’re trapped in,” Widget says.

“And how much you like whoever you’re stuck there with,” Poppet adds, kicking his black boot with her white one. (pg. 175)


A reminder: The book up for discussion in December is Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. Discussion is due to happen on December 22, so there’s still plenty of time to read it! There’s also still time to vote in January’s poll for books about first contact (just scroll to the bottom for the poll).

9 Comments

  • Kelly McCarty November 24, 2017 at 7:53 pm

    I think this was actually my third time reading The Night Circus, so obviously, I like it a lot. I choose it for my “speculative fiction book that you most want to see turned into a movie” Roundtable that we did back in May. I’m not a big reader of fantasy and I think that is something that helps with this book, because I didn’t feel like I needed an explanation for the magic, other than, “It’s magic, just go with it.” I wasn’t disappointed by the plot, either.

    I love the vivid descriptions in this novel. I want to see the elaborate clock that Herr Thiessen makes, the carousel where the animals actually breathe, the ice garden, and the wishing tree. I want to watch Celia change the color of her dress with her magic. I feel like this is a very cinematic book, which is why I think it would make a good movie.

    I think that the man in the grey suit did trick Tara into jumping in front of the train tracks because she was asking questions. I think Herr Thiessen’s death was more of an accident, as a result of Isobel undoing her charm, and Celia gradually losing her ability to hold the circus together. I felt worse for Isobel during this reading; I think it didn’t occur to me during my first reading how much Marco leads her on and betrays her.

    The night circus would probably make my top ten list of “Literary places that I wish were real so I could viist them.”

    Reply
    • Merrin November 26, 2017 at 8:40 pm

      The prose is marvelous, for sure. The descriptions are very vivid, especially of the circus itself and the clock.

      I agree re: Isobel and Marco. Kind of a dick move on his part tbh.

      Reply
  • Nicole Taft November 24, 2017 at 9:43 pm

    I’m actually really surprised you didn’t see the romance part coming. I saw that from a mile away. In fact, I fully expected them to get together at some point. Especially given the way the competition was going. Otherwise what would be the tension? What would be the stakes? Certainly not the other characters that we got so little of because they weren’t more than extras in the background.

    I think Tara’s death was an unfortunate accident – I guess Alexander didn’t do a very good job of messing with her memory. Because he muddled it so she left. And then she saw him talking to almost nothing so it piqued her interest and since she was already muddled, never even saw the train coming. So while he’s definitely at fault, I don’t believe it was purposeful. He doesn’t like the fact that the venue is such a public thing anyway; this almost makes it even more public.

    Bailey’s part in everything was actually the most interesting to me because the entire time I kept wondering how he fit into everything. I didn’t get the feeling he was magical in any way (the way Marco and Celia were), but just some farm boy that would end up playing a part. But what that part was eluded me until the very end.

    Ok, well, almost the most interesting thing. The descriptions of the circus itself were the most interesting. I, too, would like to add this on my list of “Places I’d like to visit if they were real.”

    Reply
    • Merrin November 26, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      I saw the romance coming, I just don’t think the book did a terribly great job of selling the characters knowing each other enough to fall in love? I don’t know, it just didn’t seem to me to happen organically. But I knew that was going to happen with them, because it just had the feeling of that kind of book.

      Reply
    • Merrin November 27, 2017 at 2:59 pm

      I kind of wanted more about Bailey and how the circus ran under him, actually? I liked his set up bits and his connection to the circus as a young kid, but I think I would have liked more exploration of how he integrates into the circus.

      Reply
  • Shara White November 26, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    Thank goodness for a long weekend, which allowed me to finish the book, FINALLY.

    I have to say, the writing is lush and gorgeous, and I, too, saw the romantic storyline coming a mile away. I think that’s largely in part once I knew the competitors were of opposite gender, I felt a romance would be inevitable (because society/pop culture has trained me to assume heterosexual leads will fall in love). Of course, the back cover copy spoiled that plot-point too.That said, I like how it was developed and wish we could’ve seen it develop more, simply because Marco was kind of an asshole and I wanted him to earn Celia’s love more. In fact, towards the end I kept hoping he’d be the one to bite the dust, because he had hurt so many people (poor, poor Isobel).

    One thing I appreciated though was how the book was aware that the other players were pawns in the game. It acknowledged it and reconciled it by handing off the power of the circus to someone else and giving the players the ability to sustain it, which I loved.

    If I had one criticism, it’s that I wish the book would’ve explained a tic more: I’m not fluent in tarot by any stretch of the imagination, and I felt like the book expected me to KNOW what certain cards could potentially mean when they turned up. This would’ve helped me understand more fully what Isobel was doing when she was trying to keep the balance. I still don’t know what the card meant that she used to do her spell.

    But overall, I really enjoyed this and didn’t mind the multiple timelines (something I’m used to), and the magic (for the most part) was explained just right for this world: I didn’t have a moment of wondering how or why it worked, it just did, and that’s all I needed to know. In some ways this felt more magical realism (with a STRONG push to fantasy) that straight up fantasy, and perhaps that I was able to roll with it. If this story had taken place in a fantasy world, I think I would’ve expected far much more from the magical system.

    Anyway, great pick, and I’m glad I finally got to read this!

    Reply
    • Merrin November 26, 2017 at 8:41 pm

      I didn’t mean to imply that I didn’t know a romance would happen, because I definitely did, given that this was just that kind of book. What I meant to say was that I don’t feel the story sold their relationship enough to actually buy that feelings had developed.

      Reply
  • Casey Price November 27, 2017 at 10:59 pm

    It’s been ages since I read any of this book, so I’m just going off of memory. I loved this book rather intensely when I first read it, but I haven’t revisited it at all, sadly. I don’t actually remember that much of the story, to be honest. The descriptions and writing style are what stand out in my mind the most. I almost feel like the plot takes a big backseat to the setting and the writing, if that makes sense. Reading everybody else’s thoughts really makes me want to read it again.

    Fun fact! I first heard of this book shortly after its debut while I was lurking on Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s forums, as Morgenstern thanked them in the acknowledgements.

    Reply
    • Merrin November 29, 2017 at 8:58 am

      The descriptions of the places and people are really really vivid. I do wish she’d spent more time describing the system of magic, which I found kind of confusing.

      But that’s cool!

      Reply

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