The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern fit this bill for me when I read it this fall. Before I get into the details, I want to say that while I was reading this book I was utterly captivated. This was by no means the best written book I read this year (it has some first novel issues and could have used cutting in some places and beefing up in others); however, I cannot remember the last time I read a book which sucked me into its world and refused to let me go. Maybe it was when I read Harry Potter for the first time.
The set up here is simple. 2 aging magicians meet to have another competition; one in a long line of competitions they have engaged in over the years. They each find a young child to become their protege. As the two children grow up, they are pitted against one and other in a test of their skills and imagination. The venue of this battle is an amazing circus, but the two young people (a boy and a girl) do not know each other; they just know they must continue to act upon the circus to keep the battle going. What the terms of engagement are, and the consequences of losing are not known, but it is clear that they are severe.
That is the plot, but it is not even close to the reason you would read this book. This is a novel that needs to be discovered.
The Night Circus is all about the details and the characters. The story bounces around between different character's points of view and even to different years (but the date is clearly marked at the start of each chapter). We see how the competition affects dozens of people, changing the course of their lives. These characters drive the narrative. Their relationship to each other, but more importantly to the circus itself, is a joy to watch unfold. Some grow and some crumble, but all are both interesting and thought provoking.
So, you need to be okay with a book that jumps between characters and subplots quickly. All points of view and subplots add depth to the story. It worked for me because it enhanced the power of the circus. I suggest you simply let Morgenstern take you along on her ride. For some it may be too confusing, but for me, it was a joy to be so entertained in such an original and intricately built story.
I actually found the relationship that develops between the 2 magicians themselves the least satisfying part of the book, but it didn't really matter to me. My enjoyment went back to the circus itself and the characters' places within it.
I loved the details of the circus itself. The two magicians build new attractions and tents trying to up stage each other. New sections begin with descriptions of these wondrous inventions. These sections were the best part of the novel. I read them over and over. The language was lyrical, the descriptions captivating and enchanting. I was left begging to go to the actual circus.
There is also a clock, the clock-maker himself, and those who become groupies of the circus which I also enjoyed following.
Again, I am trying to be vague but still articulate the book's appeal. I want readers to discover this book on their own. Giving any of the wonder away would be unfair. The wonder is why a reader will fall in love with this book.
I do have to say that while this novel is filled with beauty, there is also an underlying darkness that permeates the story from the first page on. This intense magic has serious consequence for all involved. Watching the characters come to terms with the price they have paid by being a part of this enchanting world is also a reason I liked this book. I did find the ultimate conclusion of the novel only partially satisfying, but to be fair, the book was so captivating that I think no ending would be perfect. Readers will not want to leave the world Morgenstern created, so as a result, would not be happy with any ending.
If you want a book which will take you away to a magical world that will take a hold of you and threaten to never let you go, read The Night Circus. It is a great option for a plane ride or vacation. It is not perfect, but it is mesmerizing. I will put it on my sure bet list for years to come.
Three Words That Describe This Book: captivating, magical, lyrical.
Readalikes: Neal Wyatt had this great list of Readalikes, Read Arounds, and Watchalikes. Please use the link to see her suggestions. I will not repeat any of them here.
If you like The Night Circus, run, do not walk, to the library and check out Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. This novel won the Pulitzer in 1997, but has become largely forgotten. I am telling you now though, fans of the descriptions of the circus itself and those who were caught up in the awe of its beauty need to read Martin Dressler too.
Two other lyrical, magical, and captivating books with interesting characters about whom you come to care deeply are The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen.
Although I do not personally like Lev Grossman's The Magicians series it should be a solid suggestion for most fans of The Night Circus.
For those who liked the more macabre aspects of The Night Circus, a better choice would be Mrs. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
For people looking for more books about or set in a circus, click here for some suggestions I have made in the past. ("the circus" is one of my personal favorite frames).
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