Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I recently listened to the audio book of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and really enjoyed it, it’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s an adult fantasy, almost magical realism, set in part in London, as well as various real cities across the world that the circus visits. It spans over a century, with the main story beginning in the mid 1800s and ending in the early 1900s.

TL;DR two magicians play a dangerous game, pitting their unwitting contestants against each other in a decades-long battle of talent and skill. A miraculous circus that only opens at night, a group of incredibly talented illusionists and performers, and an utterly fabulous clock all combine to make a spectacular fairy tale filled with magic and enchantment.

 

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4.5 stars

Synopsis

Where to start! This book has so many layers, so many subplots that combine to make a beautifully complex story. It begins with an introduction to the circus as though you yourself are visiting it right now, in modern day, describing what you see and smell.

Admittedly, the second person present tense was jarring at first, I’ve never read a book that was written that way, but only the framing parts are in second, the rest of the story is written in third. I’ve seen a few reviews where people DNFed because they couldn’t get into the book, and to be honest I can see why some didn’t persevere, but as I was listening to the audio book it was easier to push past the initially uncomfortable parts and just listen until I was completely absorbed by the story.

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.”

We start with Prospero and “the man in the grey suit”, or Alexander, two old friends and rivals who decide to each choose a pawn to play in a mysterious game. Prospero’s own daughter Celia has recently come to live with him after her mother committed suicide, and Prospero quickly realises that she has inherited his magical abilities, a natural talent for manipulating the world around her. Marco on the other hand, Alexander’s playing piece, is plucked from an orphanage and spends years learning how to create illusions, use charms and enchantments, and manipulate the perceptions of the people around him.

“People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.”

We then meet Chandresh Lefevre, who Alexander encourages to open a circus, providing them with a game board on which to play their pieces. Marco takes on the role of Chandresh’s assistant, and Celia auditions to be the circus’s illusionist. Neither is aware that the other is their opponent. Both use their own skills and abilities to manipulate the circus and those who are a part of it, including the proprietors and the performers, waiting for the day their challenge begins, unaware that it already has.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon . . . is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

They each begin to add to the circus, creating new and spectacular attractions – an ice garden, a cloud maze, a wishing well. Eventually, they both work out who their competitor is, and recognising the beauty of each others’ magic, they fall in love.

“Everything I have done, every change I have made to that circus, every impossible feat and astounding sight, I have done for her.”

There’s a parallel story about a young boy called Bailey who visits the circus as a child and meets Poppet, one of the twins, Poppet and Widget, who were born the night the circus opened and possess magical abilities of their own. When the circus returns years later, he searches for Poppet and discovers a whole new destiny.

“You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.”

The book is incredibly descriptive, with some long sections that only describe the various tents and features of the circus, such as the amazing clock, rather than furthering the plot, but it is astonishingly beautiful and Morgenstern’s imagination is fabulous. Some of the characters could do with a bit more fleshing out, I would have loved to hear more backstory on some of them, like Tsukiko the contortionist, and Alexander – the most mysterious character in the entire book, but in some ways the lack of backstory adds to the overall mystery.

The origins and limitations of magic are never explained, leaving it up to the readers’ imagination – a lot of things are alluded to in the story and never fully explained. How Marco is able to study magic and learn to wield it, while Celia is born with natural abilities, is just one of the questions we’re left with.

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I’m giving The Night Circus 4.5 stars because it was absolutely enchanting, with wonderful descriptions and a fairy tale like plot. The only reason it’s not a five star read for me is because of the confusing format, with changes in person and tense as well as time jumps that leave you wondering how long has passed if you’re not listening carefully.

The mountain of questions I was left with afterwards also stopped this from being five star, some of which are interesting and allow me to wonder, others make me wish there had been more explanation and back story. The ending was definitely unexpected, I’m not sure how I feel about it, I don’t think I would have ended it quite that way, but I don’t feel like I need a sequel, I think the story tied up neatly and didn’t really leave room, unless we focused on Poppet and Bailey’s story.

All in all, it was a lovely listen, and now I’m even more excited to download Caraval, which I’ve seen described as ‘The Night Circus for YA’! Have you read The Night Circus? What were your thoughts? I hear it’s been optioned for a film, but there’s been no announcements yet – I’d love to see it on screen! Who would you cast?

Lyndsey

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Review The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern Lyndsey's Book Blog

Writing romance

Love affects all of us, it’s one of the themes that is universal to almost every single genre. Whether it’s a parent’s love in children’s lit, first love in YA, or the Fifty Shades kind, love is everywhere you look in literature.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d take a look at what makes a really good romance in writing. As my genre is YA, I’m going to stick to what I know – these tips are for romance as a subplot rather than the main focus of your novel, although they could be adapted however you please.

Scroll on, intrepid reader!

 

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Know your audience

The accepted age-range for Young Adult seems to be 12-18 years old, which is pretty broad when it comes to experience, if you think about it. An eighteen year old might enjoy the odd steamy scene in their novels, but younger teens are probably not looking for too much steam. (Or maybe they are, but their parents would prefer not!)

On the other hand, teenagers have a lot of hormones pumping through their bloodstreams, and almost every teen has had a crush or a relationship at one time or another. They think about sex, talk about it with their friends, but they’re not all necessarily doing it.

Personally, I don’t mind sex in YA. I think there is a line though and some authors cross into New Adult territory at times. For me, first times and learning about sexuality are completely normal subjects for YA books to cover. Graphic scenes that border on erotica are better left to adult novels, in my opinion. But, it’s up to you. Do what feels right for your novel and your characters, and you can’t go wrong.

The Friend Zone

Nowadays, it seems that being in the “friend zone” has become a bad thing. Personally, I have to disagree. I absolutely love friendships that become more, it’s the best way to find your soulmate and the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. If you can’t even be friends, how can you be partners?

For teens, I think the most common way of starting a relationship is to be friends first. A lot of people go through years of school together and don’t start dating until they’ve known each other for a really long time. They have things in common, have grown up together and spend time together in groups of friends as well as alone.

Some authors forget this fact, and tend to omit the friendship side of the relationship in their books. Yes, it might add to the word count and not technically be essential to the plot, but readers need to see relationships where the two people involved enjoy each other’s company. It’s our responsibility to show young readers how life and love can and should be (ignoring the fantastical elements, those are just fun embellishments). It’s not all angst, flirtatious looks and sex – people actually talk sometimes, and those can be some of the best bits.

Three’s a crowd

Ah, the old-fashioned love triangle. Some readers love them, some hate them. They have become a pretty overused trope in literature, and are not actually very common in real life. (Are they? Am I missing out? I don’t think so…)

There is still a market for books with love triangles (hence why so many have them), but I would encourage you to make yours a little bit different. Don’t follow the usual path of girl dates sweet guy, meets sexy bad boy and has to choose. Switch it up a bit. Think about what would ramp up the tension. Are your two potential suitors from rival gangs? Are they from two different species that are at war with each other? Is one dead and one alive? Make it really interesting.

The best love triangles keep you guessing until the very end. Make sure both choices seem equally good, or bad. It’ll be obvious to the reader if you’re leaning one way the whole time, and it’ll take all the tension out of the situation.

Ten things I hate about you

One of the most popular romances in literature is the “hate/love” trope, where two individuals who initially despise each other gradually fall in love – or realise their animosity was just a facade all along. Such classics as The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing use this type of romance, and if it’s good enough for the Bard, it’s good enough for me! Even Ron and Hermione’s relationship in the Harry Potter series fits into this category.

My advice would be to see how the masters do it before trying it yourself, read a few books that use this style of romance and make notes about what works and what doesn’t. This is another one where pacing can be a nightmare, so send your manuscript to beta readers you trust and grill them on how they thought the romance developed. The change of heart should be gradual, but if readers are left staring at the page in confusion rather than whooping in delight, then it’s too subtle. If it doesn’t feel natural to your readers, it will probably just annoy them.

Unrequited love

Probably the most frustrating type of love story is the unrequited one. Where the smitten kitten spends their days desperately seeking the attention of their crush, never to be noticed.

This story line can go one of two ways. Either the crush eventually realises they also have feelings for the protagonist, wondering how they ever missed how cute/funny/perfect they are, or the protagonist falls for someone else and finally sees their crush for the self-absorbed jerk they really are.

An unrequited love story where the protagonist discovers self-love and realises she doesn’t need anybody else would be a fun, inspirational read!

Obsession = not just a fragrance

My least favourite type of romance is the creepy, stalkerish obsession. The “if I can’t have him no one can” variety. It makes a great thriller, but probably isn’t the best example to be giving young adult readers. If done well, it can teach a number of important lessons, but it’s easy to do badly.

Quite a few YA books use this trope though. Often a brooding, sexy boy starts appearing wherever the female protagonist is, giving her dark looks and making intimidating comments about how she’s in danger, or how she’ll come to him soon and he’ll be waiting for her. I can totally see how a tall, dark and handsome guy who is clearly interested may be attractive, but if there’s no more to it than that it gets old pretty quickly.

No insta-love

When you were a teenager, did you ever see a guy or girl and become instantly obsessed with them? I did, all the time. Celebrities, boys in my class – I changed my mind almost daily about who I fancied and who I didn’t. But, that’s not love. That’s attraction. Infatuation, even.

It’s rare to meet someone and both immediately feel something, let alone be brave enough to admit it. Teenagers in particular are shy and secretive – they wouldn’t tell their crush how they felt straight away. So, why does it happen in books, all the time?

Insta-love is not realistic.

Now, if it’s being used to further the plot, e.g. if it turns out one of the couple is using the other to get to someone/something, especially if they then develop real feelings (one of my favourite tropes!), then that’s different. That’s a legitimate plot device. But, too many writers jump the gun and have their characters fall for each other too quickly, skipping the awkward, clumsy flirtations and nervous interactions that make romances (especially teen romances) believable.

Readers love seeing the sweet, getting-to-know-you moments between your characters. They want to feel like the romance happened in real time and they got to see it develop in front of their eyes.

It can be difficult to judge pacing, but this is something your beta readers can definitely help with. Ask them if they felt like the romance felt rushed or took too long to build, and then make the appropriate adjustments.

 

Can you think of any other traditional romances in literature? Which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! And have a lovely Valentines (or Galentines), whatever you have planned!

 

Lyndsey

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