The Story: [From GoodReads:]
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.
My Take: I feel a little better seeing that I’m not alone in my split sentiments about this novel judging by the other three-star (and lower) reviews on GoodReads. As a whole, I think the concept the blurb presents is intriguing. Sadly, The Night Circus, while certainly not terrible, didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had set forth for it in my mind.
For starters, the writing here is quite lovely and perfectly sets each scene, drawing you in with delicate details ranging from colorful visuals, to weather conditions, to even delicious scents. I had no problem envisioning the various settings, and I love books that create an actual atmosphere for their characters to exist in rather than making it feel like the characters just reside inside a black box. Likewise, the Night Circus itself evokes a sense a mystery and magic that I heartily enjoyed. Circuses make for great fictional settings where the whimsical and wonderful can happen. So on that front, I wasn’t disappointed and I thought the Night Circus scenes were well-executed and retained this sense of wonder.
Some of the characters here were also colorful and fun, namely Poppet and Widget (a set of quirky twins); Bailey (who brought a sense of normalcy to the otherwise larger-than-life circus characters); and Celia, who came the most alive for me when she showcased her magical talents (plus I seriously want her color-changing dress!).
For those aspects alone, this novel fairly deserves three stars, and I noted in my comments on GoodReads upon finishing this book that it was actually 3.5 stars for me chiefly due to the writing and the book’s overall tone and atmosphere. However, a few things held me back from awarding it a full four stars and it appears to be aspects other fellow GoodReads reviewers took issue with as well.
First, there essentially is no plot, at least from the novel’s midway point on. Initially, the book seems headed towards a showdown between Celia and Marco, two young magicians who are unfortunately pit against each other from an early age in a twisted game of sorts. Neither is aware of the other until, as fate would have it, they meet and (natch) fall in love. This plot could have worked but, as stated, it seems to vanish about halfway in. At that point, the mysterious contest is all but forgotten and the story stalls in favor of fantastical circus scenes and non-circus-related interactions between characters.
Along these lines, the “romance” between Celia and Marco seemed crafted almost for the sake of convenience and is devoid of chemistry as it’s plagued by insta-attraction. In a book with weaker writing, this would have been enough for me to sit the book aside indefinitely. Yet I loved the setting so much that I kept reading, curious to see if the plot would eventually find itself or if Celia and Marco would become compelling star-crossed lovers. Alas, none of that ever happened.
Instead, the novel seemed content to offer up darkly whimsical moments rather than any ultimate goal or endgame. I actually caught myself speed-reading from the 70% mark to the end, which is never a good sign when I do that during a first reading. For me, the novel could have worked at half its length, which perhaps would have forced it to possess a more cohesive and evident plot.
Similarly, the novel seems to confuse intrigue for vagueness. When employing intrigue, a novel offers up a sense of mystery or a mysterious element that the characters in the story are aware of but we, the readers, are not. But eventually these said elements are explained so we are brought up to speed. However, in The Night Circus, some of the story’s most critical elements (such as the contest) are vaguely presented. The characters within seem to know what’s going on, the significance of the event, and its rules yet readers are never clued in, not even by the end.
For the sake of comparison, in The Hunger Games, we’re immediately thrown into the Games’ tribute reaping process without any knowledge as to what is going on; however, later on, the information we seek to know (i.e. what are the Games, how do they work, etc.) is revealed. In contrast, the contest in The Night Circus is essentially thrust upon us as Celia and Marco are revealed to be its future participants yet the contest itself is never explained. Thus we’re left plagued with questions (or at least I was). Who started this contest? What was its original purpose? Did it even have a purpose? Was the purpose twisted over time? Why were Celia and Marco specifically chosen aside from their magical abilities? Did someone suspect they would become lovers so they wanted to pit them against each other to see what would happen? Is the contest somehow tied into the Night Circus? If so, why and how? And so on and so forth. These were questions I harbored in my mind as I read, hoping for answers yet none came.
There were other “whys” in this story that were never addressed yet the novel presents these elements as if we’re supposed to accept them without much context (such as what exactly is the purpose of the character of Bailey and how is Celia able to see a particular ghost). I caught myself flipping back and forth between chapters, curious if I had missed any important details. But as the book wore on, I just wanted to get to the end to see how it all wrapped up. Needless to say, the ending wasn’t as spectacular as I had initially envisioned.
As a whole, I was really disappointed because I thought this novel had seriously good potential with an elegant atmosphere, a cool concept, and some genuinely interesting characters. However, its lack of a cohesive plot and an overabundance of vague story elements eventually eroded my initially positive sentiments.
Content: This novel has some darker elements and issues that make it a better fit for older teens and adults as opposed to anyone younger.
Language – Almost non-existent save for a single use of the f-word early on and a handful of milder, PG-level profanities.
Violence – Violence occurs chiefly in the form of menacing magic though there are some on-page deaths (described without graphic details save for the mention of blood) and abuse, especially in the book’s early chapters (as one child character is forced to cut her own fingers in order to magically heal them).
Sexual Content -The novel is almost devoid of sexual content except for a non-graphic tryst between two characters. In a single scene, said characters undress and tumble to the floor though this is as detailed as it gets. Elsewhere, another character makes a passing comment about having many lovers but nothing further is discussed.
Thematic Elements – It’s worth mentioning that the novel glamorizes the use of tarot cards as a way for characters to determine their future and depicts a young Celia working as a medium for a time. Personally, I take no stock in mediums, tarot cards, or the like as a means by which to discover the future. So seeing these used in the context of a fantasy novel, it wasn’t a big concern for me as tarot cards and mediums were lumped into the story’s other forms of magic. That being said, I recognize there is a big difference between the magic of fantasy literature and real-world occultism. Therefore, readers who object to any form of real-world occultism in their fantasy stories may want to be aware of this as tarot cards especially receive some degree of focus throughout the story as a whole.
Overall, The Night Circus is a peculiar book that I’m honestly not sure who it might appeal to. For fans of anything circus-related, this will probably be an obvious title to check out. However, while the novel perfects the feel and intrigue evoked by the titular Night Circus, it delves into seemingly directionless scenes, possesses a lackluster “romance,” and relies heavily upon vague story elements that mask the lack of a cohesive plot. In the end, if you enjoy novels that elevate atmosphere over actual story, then you will probably be intrigued by this. But if you prefer stories that are steeped in a whimsical ambiance but also showcase a plot with a clear beginning, middle, and end, then this might not be the best choice.