Harvill Secker, $32.95, October 2011
The Night Circus is an astonishingly rich and detailed work of the imagination, bringing to life a world firmly grounded in late nineteenth century England and, within it, a small group of people with magical powers.
Two shadowy master magicians pit their prize students, Marco and Celia, against one another in a duel which neither of them wanted nor fully understands. Their arena is a travelling circus, the Circus of Dreams, which is a mix of illusions and real magic, circus artists and magicians – acrobats, a tarot reader who can indeed see into the future, an ice garden, jugglers and an illusionist whose feats are not tricks. Only after Marco and Celia find themselves in love do they discover that their duel can end only in death. Or can they escape the trap their teachers have so callously constructed?
Twilight has driven a surge of interest in paranormal romance but The Night Circus rises far above that level, beautifully written and seamlessly integrating a wealth of esoteric knowledge. It merits comparison with Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which won nearly every fantasy award in its year of publication. That was a debut novel, as is this. History may be about to repeat.
• Review written and first published in 2011, added to this site in December 2020.
We had to wait years before Morgenstern’s second novel, The Starless Sea, appeared in 2019. If not quite up to the exalted level of the Circus, it is still a very good fantasy novel. It is more explicitly a YA romance and more concerned with contemporary gender politics, neither of which is necessarily a bad thing. Less happily, it is somewhat top-heavy with imagery and myths which clog the narrative rather than illuminating it.