One of the strongest elements of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the setting. Rowling created a highly detailed and sweeping world that was both magical and scary. In her dazzling debut novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern attempts a similar feat. Like Hogwarts, Le Cirque des Revers (Circus of Dreams) is vivid, whimsical and highly developed. That’s where the similarities end.
Unlike Harry Potter, the stakes in The Night Circus do not involve the fate of the magical world. The stakes are personal as Morgenstern explores issues of love and obligation, competition and collaboration, fantasy and reality, free will and coercion, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.
The story centers on a bet between two illusionists in the late 1800s: Prospero the Enchanter, also known as Hector Bowen, and the mysterious Mr. A.H., also known as Alexander and the man in the gray suit. Prospero puts up his daughter, Celia, against a gifted orphan, Marco Alisdair, handpicked by Mr. A.H. The venue for the competition is a fantastical night circus, designed by theater impresario M. Chandresh Christopher Lefevre (you’ve got to love the names Morgenstern gives her characters).
The two stern taskmasters train their protégés without divulging the rules or the nature of the competition. They don’t even tell their competitor the identity of their adversary. Telling a tale like this is tricky high-wire act for any writer, but Morgenstern’s writing has a seductive quality that cajoles the reader into going along for the ride.
The strength of this story is the highly imaginative and detailed world of the circus. Morgenstern evokes all of the senses in her description of setting, making the circus come alive in the reader’s mind.
Eventually, Celia and Marco catch on to the game. They fall in love and, instead of competing, they decide to collaborate. But they must figure out a way to end the game without triggering a catastrophe.
I’m a fan of ambiguous endings because real life is that way. Rarely do people live happily ever after. However, this ending felt a little too ambiguous. It was as though Morgenstern wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t bear to end the story by making a more painful choice. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling the ending.
My only other criticism is that Morgenstern spends much more time describing every detail of the setting than she devotes to character development. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about how Celia and Marco fell in love. It seemed to happen quickly without a lot of contact between the two rivals.
Still, these are minor flaws. I found The Night Circus to be an unusual and enjoyable novel.
How important is the setting to your novel?