Fangirl Friday: The Night Circus Book Review

For the first and, what will likely be last, time, I attended a geek focused book club in my current city. The only reason I won’t keep attending is because I’ll soon be moving to be with Dear Betrothed. And the only reason I haven’t yet attended in my year living here is because it had previously overlapped with other social engagements.

But, this month, the book club worked out with my schedule, and the nerd gentleman from a few weeks ago graciously lent me his copy of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I in turn lent him Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, my review for which you can read here.

Morgenstern’s book, billed as fantasy, is a far cry from the prototypical fantasy fare, which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing … really, it is just a strange thing.

Join me for my review. The Night Circus opens much like the bizarre spectacle it describes: beautifully, strangely, abruptly. And, just like the story’s circus tents that magically appear and disappear all over the world in the blink of an eye, the book’s chapters flit unpredictably across characters, decades, locations, and even POV.

The story spans almost the entirety of the late 1800s. It encompasses a world where magic — true magic — is a skill that is rare but teachable. This isn’t congenital magic where you’re either born with it or you’re not. Rather, it is a magic honed by few and made to look slightly fake to keep the ignorant from knowing it is real.

Prospero the Enchanter is one such illusionist, traveling the world and performing genuine magic tricks for audiences, all the while keeping them subdued enough that they aren’t too unbelievable. When Celia, his apparently illegitimate child, arrives at his doorstep one day, Prospero suddenly has a protégé who soon becomes an unwitting pawn in a dark, drawn out game.

With no explanation of how they know each other or why they would want to play such a “game,” Prospero and an unnamed man agree to a game whereby each man has a protégé magician who must compete with each other. Except, this isn’t a magic battle played out in real time. It is a strange, slow game of turns, where neither child is allowed to interfere with the move made by his or her opponent.

In fact, a good ten years passes after the game is contracted before Marco, Celia’s opponent, even makes his first move. What ensues is a bizarre series of dream-like vignettes that set a backdrop for a star crossed romance.

To say that this book is unusual could be interpreted as praise, and in some sense it is. The entire thing feels dreamy, with hundreds of pages passing as quickly and lightly as cotton candy from a carnival dissolves. In many respects, The Night Circus feels like an afternoon stroll through a modern art museum. Each chapter sits prettily next to the one beside it, but none are direct continuations of each other. None really tell much of a story, only quaint premises that hint at the possibility of a story. And, like I would argue a lot of modern art has, there are flairs for their own sake. Many descriptions, events, even some characters, seem to exist with no purpose of advancing the plot. They’re just there to be marveled at like a painting.

I didn’t mind too much that the writing jumps back and forth between distant third person, close third person, and second person — all in present tense. Sure, second person and present tense by themselves always jar me a bit since they’re rarer, but the perspective and tense switches weren’t nearly as disengaging as the jumps in time and space. One chapter would be London in May of 1886, the next might be Prague in July of 1895, the next New York in 1887.

I finally got so frustrated with keeping track of which decade the current chapter was in that I stopped bothering to to flip back and check. After all, the chapters were short enough that soon enough it would be an entirely new decade and continent and point of view.

And besides, the characters were so painfully undeveloped and the story arc so flimsy that I honestly began to feel like nothing in this book mattered. I understand that some books just aren’t character driven. That’s not my cup of tea generally, as even halfway through the book I cared so little about any of the characters that I wouldn’t have been sad if the circus tents had erupted in flames. But the lack of fleshed out characters isn’t my only criticism.

The entire work smacked of deus ex machina, except not just due to a hand-wavy plot resolution. The entire thing, from the premise, to the mechanics of how the circus was formed and how it moves around the world, to why Prospero and the unnamed man agreed on this game — it all left me thirsty for even just a single explanation.

Two teenage magicians are pitted against each other in a battle and inadvertently fall in love. Sure, it’s a promising premise. But a premise is not a plot. Lush vignettes are not scenes. Flat, if beautiful, characters who act with no explanation are not believable. Magic may be a real mechanic in this world, but it can’t explain human behavior. And besides, mechanics, even magical ones, need bounds, otherwise why would anyone do anything?

In addition to the frustrating lack of why‘s, Morgenstern’s book takes itself way too seriously. Her no frills writing feels haughty, intentionally vague to give the illusion of depth, but really just veiling emptiness. I felt like she was straining to turn Twilight into Kafka, brooding and existential and acutely self-aware. And I’m not opposed to melding genres or emulating others, but at the end of the day there has to be something to hold onto. Characters with depth to actually care about, or a twisting plot to draw you in, or a juicy romance that’s more than mild flirtation.

But this, this had little more than pretty pictures written out in words. And oh, they were pretty. I have to give credit where credit is due; the vignettes were all as lush and sweet as the circus’s caramel apples. But a sweet morsel does not a dinner make.

All reviews I’ve read or encountered are very polarized, either loving or disliking it. I think it’s clear which camp I fall in. But tell me, if you have read The Night Circus, what did you think of it?


Book: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Doubleday, 2011

GirlyGeekGirl review: 1 out of 5 hearts


  1. What a great review. I had The Night Circus on audiobook. I just could not follow it or get into it at all. It had read all these rave reviews and I couldn’t work it out. I am quite relieved to read your review. You have very eloquently described some of what I felt about the book but in a way I couldn’t. I actually gave up on this book which is incredibly rare for me. I kept wondering if it was because the audio format and to try paperback. Having read your review, I now feel assured, it’s not a book I will enjoy. Thanks


  2. “But this, this had little more than pretty pictures written out in words. And oh, they were pretty. I have to give credit where credit is due; the vignettes were all as lush and sweet as the circus’s caramel apples. But a sweet morsel does not a dinner make.”….THIS is a perfect summary of this book. It could’ve been so much more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Precisely! I really had so many high hopes for this book, and not only because of the critical and commercial praise it received. The premise is enticing. I love magic, I love fantasy, I like a good love story, I like a good battle of good and evil. But I felt like the plot and characters were never fully fleshed out. The settings and descriptions were soooooo beautiful, and I really admire her ability to paint such a world with words. But it just didn’t feel like a story.


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