The Night Circus is a 2011 fantasy novel by Erin Morgenstern. It was originally written for the annual writing competition NaNoWriMo over the span of three NaNoWriMos. The novel is written in third-person present tense, and arranged to have a nonlinear narrative written from multiple viewpoints.
The Night Circus is a phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an ahistorical Victorian London in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) features such wonders and "ethereal enigmas" as a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor. The circus has no set schedule, appearing without warning and leaving without notice; they travel in a train disguised as an ordinary coal transport. A network of devoted fans styling themselves "rêveurs" ("dreamers") develops around the circus; they identify to each other by adding a splash of red to garb that otherwise matches the characteristic black and white of the circus tents. The magical nature of the circus is occluded under the guise of legerdemain; the illusionist truly transforms her jacket into a raven and the fortune teller truly reads the uncertain future, and both are applauded for their ingenuity.
The circus serves a darker purpose beyond entertainment and profit. Two powerful magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and the enigmatic Mr. A.H-, groom their young proteges, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, to proxy their rivalry with the exhibits as a stage. Prospero teaches his daughter to hone her innate talents by holding ever larger and more complex magical workings in her mind. Celia takes her position on the game board as the illusionist who makes true transformations, adding tents and maintaining wondrous aspects from the inside. Mr. A.H— trains his orphan ward with books in the ways of glyphs and sympathetic magic and illusory worlds that exist only in the mind of the beholder. Marco takes a position as an assistant to the producer of the circus; he works from the outside in, connected to the circus via a magical link to the central bonfire, but not a part of it. The two beguile the circus goers and each other with nightly wonders, soon falling in love despite being magically bound to a deadly competition with rules neither understands.
As the competition continues, both competitors become strained with no sign of a conclusion in sight, nor inclination of how a winner will be determined. Others within the circus start to notice strange events connected to it: the blueprints disappear from the designers' offices, and the performers appear bound to the circus and can never fail, leave permanently, have accidents, or even age. Two children--Poppet and Widget--born to a performer on opening night, have developed magical powers. The producer of the circus has his memories erased, and one of the initial investors dies in dubious circumstances- when they begin to discover the underlying truth. When the building tensions between Prospero and A.H- and the jealousy of Marco's ex-girlfriend spurned for Celia result in an innocent "rêveur" being accidentally stabbed in a circus tent, Celia begins to search for a way to end the game as quickly as possible while preserving the circus and those involved with it.
Celia learns from Prospero that the game must continue until one of the participants is unable to go on, which usually means their death. She also learns the circus contortionist, Tsukiko, is not only a magician herself but the winner of a previous contest in which her opponent committed suicide. After Celia and Marco's negotiations with their mentors fail, Tsukiko believes the competition is putting the circus and its members at risk. She plans to magically kill Marco to end the contest, believing him to be less important than Celia because he was not part of the circus. At the last moment, Celia rushes to save him, resulting in both of them being ripped from reality and becoming incorporeal spirits bound to the circus. With its magical keystones removed, the central bonfire goes out and the circus environment begins to break down. Celia and Marco preserve the circus by magically rebinding Poppet, Widget, and their new friend, a keen circusgoer called Bailey, back to the circus, relighting the fire and bringing back the spirit of the circus.
With Celia and Marco both existing only as ghosts, unable to compete but content to haunt the circus together forever, the contest is declared complete via stalemate with no winner. Poppet and Widget negotiate the release of the remaining circus properties from the former producer and Mr. A.H-, and the book ends with the revelation that Poppet, Widget, Bailey and the circus still exist in the modern day, preserved for a century and more.
The book has been extensively promoted, often with mention of Harry Potter or Twilight, but also in comparison to Neil Gaiman, Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.Ron Charles writing for The Washington Post compares Morgenstern's imagery to Steven Millhauser's, albeit with "more playful and more dramatic surrealism". Olivia Laing writing for The Observer compares the book to an "eminently intriguing cabinet of curiosities" with an intricate but unmoored setting and colorful but clockwork characters. Laura Miller writing for Salon likewise praises the "aesthetic fantasia with all the trimmings" but not the plot itself. Sarah Stegall writing for SFScope praises the vivid imagery, predicting that it should be nominated for literary awards. Richard Peabody writing for The Washington Independent Review of Books describes the narrative as nonlinear, with frequent shifts in points of view, tangential vignettes, and short almost cinematic chapters.Stacey D'Erasmo writing for The New York Times Book Review criticizes the lack of specificity of the imagery, describing the experience as being "continually told how magical the circus and its denizens are without ever being truly surprised, entranced or beguiled."
The Night Circus was a candidate for the 2011 Guardian First Book Award. It won an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2012. The novel spent seven weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, reaching number two on the hardcover fiction list.
An audiobook version of The Night Circus is read by Jim Dale.
The UK publisher, Harvill Secker, contracted Failbetter Games, creators of Echo Bazaar!, to create a puzzle game to accompany the book. The site went live on September 1, 2011, two weeks before the book was published. The game has since been moved to the Storynexus site and modified to remove the aggressive social promotion that the original included.
The film and TV rights to The Night Circus were optioned by Summit Entertainment, and a film is being produced by David Heyman and Jeff Clifford under Heyday Films. Moira Buffini was hired in February 2012 to write the screenplay.
- ^Emma Oulton (1 November 2016). "8 Best-Selling Books Written During NaNoWriMo That Show You It Can Be Done". bustle.com. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
- ^ abPeabody, Richard. "The Night Circus review". The Washington Independent Review of Books. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Rhule, Patty (September 10, 2011). "Erin Morgenstern creates a magical 'Night Circus'". USA Today. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Richman, Simmy (October 2, 2011). "The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern: a fine first stab at the greatest show on earth". London: The Independent. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Martini, Adrienne (September 30, 2011). "Adrienne Martini reviews Erin Morgenstern". Locus. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Charles, Ron (September 13, 2011). "Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" reviewed by Ron Charles". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Laing, Olivia (September 10, 2011). "The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - review: The book itself looks beautiful but creaky plotting and lifeless characters leave The Night Circus less than enchanting". London: The Observer. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Miller, Laura (September 4, 2011). ""The Night Circus": Magician vs. Magician". Salon. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Stegall, Sarah (September 22, 2011). "The Circus of Dreams - Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus". SFScope. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^D'Erasmo, Stacey (7 October 2011). "Erin Morgenstern's Magician Death Match". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
- ^Flood, Alison (August 31, 2011). "Guardian first book award longlist". London: The Guardian. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^"YALSA's Alex Awards. 2012 Winners". Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- ^Schuessler, Jennifer. "New York Times Best Sellers (Hardcover Fiction)". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- ^Carstensen, Angela (August 10, 2011). "The Debut: Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (interview)". School Library Journal. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^O'Hara, Jan (September 9, 2011). "Author Interview at Writer Unboxed (Part II)". Writer Unboxed. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Khan, Yasmeen (September 1, 2011). "The Night Circus". Failbetter Games. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Franklin, Dan (May 27, 2011). "The Night Circus - an opening out of the storyworld". The Literary Platform. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- ^Morgenstern, Erin. "FAQ". Retrieved 5 April 2013.
- ^Brooks, Brian (2012-02-21). "Moira Buffini To Write 'The Night Circus' For Summit". Deadline.
- ^Kit, Borys (2012-02-21). "Summit Taps 'Jane Eyre' Screenwriter to Adapt 'Night Circus' for Big Screen (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter.
In terms of the book as object, this must be one of the most beautiful novels of the year. Its die-cut cover, black-edged pages and intricate endpapers attest to the publisher's hopes that Erin Morgenstern's magically minded debut will secure the vast audience left bereft by the conclusion of the Harry Potter chronicles. If fantasy novels rest on an ability to build rather than populate a world, they might just be in luck.
The Night Circus is a strange beast, creakily plotted but boasting a fabulously intricate mise en scène. At its centre is the appropriately named Le Cirque de Rêves, a dreamlike travelling circus in the latter part of a baggily imagined 19th century. It arrives without warning in fields around the world, opening its gates between the hours of dusk and dawn. Once inside this monochromatic world, audiences might watch a tattooed contortionist fold herself into a tiny glass box, feast on chocolate mice and caramel popcorn, or wander through a sequence of tents that includes an ice garden, a desert and a maze constructed from towering clouds.
What few realise is that the circus is the result of a bizarre competition between two rival magicians, Prospero the Enchanter (also known as Hector Bowen) and Mr A H, a man of such formidable mystery that no one can quite remember his name. While Prospero believes magic is a matter of innate talent, Mr A H thinks it can be taught to anyone of reasonable intelligence. Periodically, they like to set their respective students up in contests known portentously as "the game", though anyone hoping for a rulebook or score sheet will be disappointed. The circus, created by magically manipulating a theatre impresario, serves as the duelling ground for the latest pair of students, Marco the orphan and Prospero's beautiful daughter, Celia, whose training includes regularly having her fingertips slashed in order to learn how to mend broken objects.
While even the best fantasy novels don't sound particularly convincing in precis ("and then the hobbit had to escape from a giant spider"), Morgenstern's strength evidently doesn't lie in her ability to construct a narrative. The mystery surrounding the game is never adequately resolved and the tensions that are so neatly drawn in the opening chapters drain abruptly away towards the end. A subplot involving a small boy in Massachusetts has the air of an afterthought: an attempt to propel what is essentially a static or revolving story.
Aside from a vague nod at costume, there's no real sense that an authentic world, either historical or counterfactual, exists outside the circus gates, and though this increases the intensity it also leaves the book feeling oddly unmoored (Susanna Clarke'sJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which seems to have served as something of a blueprint, didn't make this mistake, being deeply embedded in the same period). Nor do the characters exactly come to life, though they certainly function as visually alluring automata, with their ink-splashed dresses and shocks of red hair.
Circuses often attract novelists as transgressive spaces, the carnival under canvas, where all manner of misrule might take place. One only has to glance at Angela Carter to see the sort of grubby, seductive bawdiness that might explode from a contained world of greasepaint and sawdust. Unfortunately, Morgenstern's aesthetic is a little too cutesy to be properly carnivalesque. There's an excess of kittens and while food is richly imagined, it's so densely sugary as to recall the hyperglycaemic fantasies of Enid Blyton, who wrote not only for children but also during rationing. As for sex, though the relationship between the students quickly veers into a love affair, physical passion is clunkily imagined ("the meticulously constructed gown collapses in a puddle around her feet"), in contrast to the lovers' rapturous pleasure in building illusions for each other (a wishing tree, a sunken rose garden, a pool of tears into which sorrows might be tossed like stones).
It's this pleasure in imagining near-impossible objects that marks The Night Circus out. One of the side characters, a German clockmaker, is commissioned to produce a marvellous black-and-white clock to hang above the circus entrance. "The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn." There is an appealing zest to this and the many other wonders that Morgenstern has created, and if her book isn't entirely satisfactory in the ways one might expect, it still functions as an eminently intriguing cabinet of curiosities.
Olivia Laing's To the River is published by Canongate