- Publisher: Doubleday
- ISBN: 0385534639
- Published: September 13, 2011
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.
Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.
As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.
But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.
What I Liked
This book has been favorably compared to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I agree with that. With both books, the 19th century setting fits very well with the magical elements, and both center on a competition between magicians. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, however, focuses far more on the magicians themselves and the origin of their rivalry. The Night Circus is more about this one specific competition, and how it touches the lives of many, many people. I think of it as kind of an inverse of the other book, as it shows what can happen when rival schools of magic collaborate, rather than compete.
The writing and the atmosphere it creates is beautiful, and powerfully shows the wonder of the circus, and the hold that it has on others–from the performers to its creators to its fans. It’s not easy to express that about a circus, which is about spectacle and experience, but this book absolutely succeeds in that. Despite that emphasis on description and atmosphere, the characters don’t suffer–they’re equally compelling. The only part of the book I disliked, however, was the romance between Celia and Marco–I absolutely bought the connection the two of them felt, as pawns of the magicians and competitors in a game they never chose to participate in, but I had a difficult time believing the extent of their love for each other, which impeded my ability to really appreciate the ending. It’s counter-intuitive, but I actually would have believed and enjoyed the ending more if they hadn’t been in love. Regardless, it’s a fantastic book (in every sense of the word), especially for older fans of Harry Potter and historical fiction.
There’s a lot to explore in the choice of this particular time period–most of the book takes place in the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th. How would the book had been different, or the circus had been different, if it were set in modern day? Or in a different time period? Along those lines, how do the themes and plot of the book relate to what was happening in the world at that time? I can definitely see parallels between the two different approaches to magic and the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. The idea of turning competition into collaboration is a huge one, and one I think would be fun to explore with students. The book I think really shows that while there’s truth to competition breeding excellence, collaboration also can.
There is one reference to sex–which doesn’t get more graphic than clothes being removed–so I would consider this book appropriate for middle schoolers. I’m tagging this with seventh grade, even though the AR level is 6.5, just to be clear that this book is not Harry Potter, and I wouldn’t leave it lying around for any high-reading 4th grader, say. But for students who are 12/13 and up, it’s completely fine.
The Night Circus
- - beautiful writing
- - seamless incorporation of magic with historical setting
- - balances big picture with small details incredibly well
- - complex characters
- - middle school appropriate!
- - enjoyment of the ending hinges on believing the love story
- - can be structurally confusing for some students