In Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, the circus arrives without warning, popping up in fields outside of towns and cities with no advance notice. The tents are all striped black and white; the ground is painted black and white swirls; a wrought-iron fence encloses the grounds. The circus is only open from sunset to sunrise - no exceptions - and nothing can be seen stirring behind the fence during the daylight hours. But when dusk comes, the lights come up, making the tents glow and gleam, and the iron gates swing wide. Le Cirque des Reves - the Circus of Dreams - is open. It is a wonder, this Circus. Every tent, every costume, every attraction is dressed only in shades of black and white. There are contortionists, fortune tellers, carnival food booths, black panthers and snow leopards, aerialists and tumblers, mazes, rides, wondrously constructed clockworks. The townfolk who come to the Circus are amazed and awestruck, and many come back again and again.
The Circus is not just entertainment, however. It is also the battleground between two magicians who have been set against each other by their mentors, who themselves are ancient competitors. Pretty Celia is the Circus's resident illusionist; overflowing with natural talent, her particular skill is manipulating inanimate objects - honed when, as a child, her father sliced open her fingertips over and over again, forcing her to learn to heal herself quickly. Marco's magic has been studied and learned: his patron plucked him from an orphanage and isolated him with nothing but books for company. He is strong in compulsion and visual illusion and now helps to manage the day-to-day operations of the Circus. At first Celia and Marco do not know the other to be their opponent but after a few meetings figure it out. A few meetings after that, they fall in love with each other, much to their patrons' chagrin - which only complicates things when they learn that this magical duel they have been bound to will result in the death of one of them. What makes it even worse is that their fates are inextricably linked with the Circus and all its members.
I struggled a little bit at first with The Night Circus. The novel keeps the reader at a distance, partly because it is set 1873-1903, partly because it is written in the third person/present tense, partly because the chapters skip around in the timeline and it can be difficult to keep track of what has happened, partly because the author maintains a fair amount of reserve and doesn't delve too deeply into her characters' heads. But I warmed to it, in large part because the descriptions of the circus are charming and because I wanted to believe in a magical circus - I would love to see Le Cirque des Reves. In The Night Circus, magic is real.
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