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The Night Circus Paperback – July 3, 2012
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Q&A with Author Erin Morgenstern
Q. This is a lovely and unique story. Why a circus? How did this story first come to you—through a character, a plotline, an emotion?
A. The story came as a location created out of desperation. I was working on a different story altogether, one that was becoming progressively more and more boring because nothing was happening. I needed something exciting to happen and I couldn't figure out how to do it with the locations I had so I sent the characters to the circus. That circus was immediately much more interesting and eventually I abandoned that other story and its characters entirely and focused on the circus instead. What eventually became The Night Circus started from exploring that spontaneously-created location, figuring out who created it and who performed in it and what its story was.
Q. What was your inspiration for some of the amazing acts in this circus?
A. Some of them were traditional circus acts or attractions made a bit more unique, like the acrobats performing directly overhead or the carousel that doesn't simply go in circles. The Cloud Maze is a play on a climbing maze I hazily recall from childhood visits to the Boston Children's Museum. Other tents were created based on color, or lack thereof. I had a lot of dark tents and wanted something lighter and white, the Ice Garden developed from that relatively simple starting point.
Q. Do you have a favorite character?
A. It's impossible to pick a true favorite, though Poppet & Widget are very dear to my heart as they're the first of the characters to turn up in my imagination. They're also just plain fun, both individually and as a pair.
Q. What was the most challenging aspect of developing this story?
A. It didn't have a plot for a very long time. Really, my biggest challenge was finding the actual story within all the atmosphere. I had the place and the characters and the feel of the book long before it had a proper story structure to tie everything together. The novel went through a great many revisions before it figured out what it wanted to be, I tried things that didn't work and then things that sort of worked and replaced old ideas with new ones until I got it right.
Q. Is there an emotion that you had to spend a lot of time with that made you uncomfortable?
A. I'm an emotional sort of person in general and I have a vivid imagination, so I feel the whole spectrum of emotion strongly when I write. It's something I'm used to, though, so nothing in particular made me uncomfortable. There is a lot of frustration felt by various characters, which is not the nicest emotion to be spending a lot of time with, but it helps to drive characters to actions which bring different emotions along.
Q. Tell me about your writing life. Do you have any rituals?
A. I binge write. I think it's because I started seriously writing by participating in National Novel Writing Month, an online-based challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I don't have as tight a time limit anymore but I still write in long marathon sessions and then I won't write for a while, I'm not a write-every-day writer. I go back and forth between input phases where I'm reading a lot or trying to get out and explore the world a bit and soak up inspirations and then I'll get back into output mode and write and write and write.
I don't have any particular rituals, I sometimes like to write in longhand when I'm searching for ideas but I do the vast majority by typing, I can't always keep up with my thoughts longhand. I'm not a coffeeshop writer because I feel obliged to order more coffee and then I end up over-caffeinated.
Q. What's the one true thing you learned from your characters in this novel?
A. I think it's something that I knew already but explored more with these characters, that nothing is as simple as black or white, good or evil. There are all those shades of grey and everyone acts from a place that they see as right and true. (Though they are allowed to change their minds.)
“Magical. Enchanting. Spellbinding. Mesmerizing.” —Associated Press
“Erin Morgenstern has created the circus I have always longed for and she has populated it with dueling love-struck magicians, precocious kittens, hyper-elegant displays of beauty and complicated clocks. This is a marvelous book.” —Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife
“Get ready to be won over. . . . Part love story, part fable, and a knockout debut. . . . So sparklingly alive, you’ll swear the pages are breathing in your hands. . . . The Night Circus defies both genres and expectations.” —The Boston Globe
“A riveting debut. The Night Circus pulls you into a world as dark as it is dazzling, fully-realized but still something out of a dream. You will not want to leave it.” —Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife
“The Night Circus is the real deal, the kind of novel that will appeal to romantics, history buff, circus aficionados, mystery fans, and lovers of a good story. . . . Steeped in circus lore, filled with evocative scenes of magic and illusion, enriched by characters as varied as the clockmaker who crafted the circus’s iconic timepiece . . . The Night Circus is worth staying up for.” —Bookreporter
“One of the best books I have ever read.” —Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader
“[A] few pages in . . . and you know you are in the presence of an extraordinary storyteller.” —The Daily Beast
“Echoing the immense pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Night Circus presents a sprightly version of 19th-century English magic. . . . A love story for adults that feels luxuriously romantic.” —The Washington Post
“Dark and extravagantly imagined.” —People
“Pure pleasure. . . . Erin Morgenstern is a gifted, classic storyteller, a tale-teller, a spinner of the charmed and mesmerizing—I had many other things I was supposed to be doing, but the book kept drawing me back in and I tore through it. You can be certain this riveting debut will create a group of rêveurs all its own.” —Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
“[Morgenstern] employs her supple prose to conjure up a series of wonders: A maze made of clouds, a ship of books floating on a sea of ink, a tent that seems to contain a vast desert.” —Salon
“Reading this novel is like having a marvelous dream, in which you are asleep enough to believe everything that is happening, but awake enough to relish the experience and understand that it is magical.” —Newsday
“Morgenstern’s exquisitely realized world will have [you] wishing to run off and join the circus.” —USA Today
“Morgenstern’s novel feels crafted from the fabric of a dream, and the circus itself never fails to astound. For me, the only real disappointment was that I couldn’t buy a ticket.” —Yvonne Zip, The Christian Science Monitor
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Step right up and prepare to be enchanted. . . . [Will] make you sit right down on the floor of your library or bookstore to see what Morgenstern conjures up next.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“The Night Circus is a gorgeously imagined fable poised in the high latitudes of Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde, with a few degrees toward Hesse’s Steppenwolf for dangerous spice. The tale is masterfully written and invites allegorical interpretations even as its leisurely but persistent suspense gives it compelling charm. An enchanting read.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
“A Victorian curio cabinet. . . . In The Night Circus, Morgenstern makes the artificial real, turning atmosphere into art.” —Kansas City Star
“The world of The Night Circus is elaborately designed, fantastically imagined and instantly intoxicating—as if the reader had downed a glass of absinthe and leapt into a hallucination.” —Rachel Syme, NPR
“[A] dazzling foray into the dreamscape of illusion.” —Family Circle
“Every once in awhile you find a novel so magical that there is no escaping its spell. The Night Circus is one of these rarities—engrossing, beautifully written and utterly enchanting. If you choose to read just one novel this year, this is it.” —Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology
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Top customer reviews
If you like Harry Potter, you'll probably like this, though it is very different.
If you, like me, adore this book and are looking for something else to read, go try Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, and it's sequel Court Duel.
If you want another wonderful way to experience this book: listen to the audiobook. It's read by Jim Dale, and it is magic.
Around the turn of the century, a mysterious circus begins making appearances around the world. It only opens at night, and many of the acts straddle the line between fantasy and reality; making it hard to tell if the acts are complex illusions or actual magic. In the center of all this are our two main characters. Ceila is the daughter of a magician named Prospero...a man who can perform REAL magic, and Marco was once an orphan who was taken in by a mysterious man (sometimes called "Alexander", but is mostly referred to as "the man in the grey suit"), and also taught the ways of real magic. Prospero and the Man in the Grey Suit decide to hold a contest, with Ceila and Marco acting as their champions, and the "Circus of Dreams" being used as the playing field. What the two magicians don't count on is their two students falling in love, and both Ceila and Marco must find a way to escape the contest they've been forced into, while also protecting the circus folk that've become unknowingly tangled up in their predicament--the most notable being Bailey, an enthusiastic fan of the circus, and a pair of clairvoyant twins named Poppet and Widget.
***POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD***
Let's start off with the bad. This is something that many reviewers have pointed out, and it's something I strongly agree with. The two main characters, Ceila and Marco, are so incredibly flat, I found it really hard to sympathize with them at all. It's a shame, because the beginning chapters with them as children started off really promising, but once they come into adulthood, they become really boring. They've become so wrapped up in their contest (and later romance) that they don't really seem to have any sort of lives or hopes and dreams beyond just what they've been bred/trained to do. We learn next to nothing about what their likes/dislikes are, and their reactions to things are so wooden, it's like they're robots. Both of them have been abused by their parents/teachers, but neither exhibit any sort of trauma or repercussions of it. At one point, Ceila talks about her father slicing her fingers with a knife, and she talks about it as if this is perfectly normal. Later, she stabs her own hand, to which Marco just raises an eyebrow. Whether said person can magically heal themselves afterward or not, such an act should STILL elicit SOME kind of grossed out and/or horrified response. I get that these people aren't exactly normal (being magic and all), but a little more emotion would be nice. Their "romance" is even more forced. Supposedly, the two hang out with each other for a number of years (the book does ALOT of time skips), but we barely get to see those interactions. Any small talk that would've developed them and their relationship more is glossed over in favor of them just building new circus tents as gifts to each other and saying "I love you" a lot (without really knowing WHY they do).
Bailey and the twins, on the other hand, were MUCH more developed and likeable. Bailey is torn between his responsibilities to his family farm, and wanting to go on an adventure, and his eventual budding friendship with Poppet and Widget is adorable. And the twins' clairvoyance (one can see a person's past, the other can see the future), proves to be a mixed blessing, as sometimes, their abilities help them avoid trouble, while other times, they can see danger coming, yet have no power to stop it, and struggle to keep their home at the circus alive, even when they realize there's much more powerful forces at work around them. It really makes me wish that these three were the main characters instead, or we would've had a much more interesting story on our hands.
Which brings me to the plot. If you're careful to read the dates at the beginning of each chapter, you'll quickly figure out that the story jumps around in time a lot. We see certain events out of order, so as not to spoil other plot points later on, and many of the events take place from various viewpoints. While that style didn't bother me at all, the plot itself is more than confusing. From what I could figure out (or assume), Prospero and the Man in the Grey Suit are, in reality, two ancient wizards who are constantly trying to one-up each other, but rather than duke it out themselves, they hire/convince/trick other people into representing them, and apparently, these "contests" have been going on for centuries. But none the less, everything is left extremely vague. The two people who have all the answers tell the audience next to nothing, but rather than make the book more mysterious, it just makes it that much harder to understand (at least for me). The rules of the contest, or even WHY they're even doing all this is never fully or properly explained. We never find out just who they are exactly, and the magic system is never given much detail to how it works. Even in a fantasy, you have to establish certain ground rules, with how the magic works and what the limitations are, and no definite information is presented here. The characters discuss hypnotism, illusions, levitation, mind reading, and other magic stuff as if the audience knows what they're talking about, and we don't. (Or at least, I don't.) Their "training montages" as children details how they grew up under the iron fist of their teachers, when this could've been used as a way to explain the base rules of the magic system and how these people do what they do. (The closest we get to a solid explanation is a fairy tale that Widget tells at one point.) Keeping all the most important details a mystery doesn't make the plot suspenseful, it just makes it confusing. (Or maybe I'm just some uncultured heathen who can't see the bigger picture here. If you guys can figure out/explain this plot better, feel free to comment and clue me in.)
**END OF SPOILERS**
However, the one really great bright spot in all this is the setting itself. The circus is so well described and developed, I wish that it existed in real life. From ice gardens, to cloud mazes, to stargazing trolley rides, each tent and act is part illusion, part magical, with a grand atmosphere that makes use of all the senses, including smell (a sense that's very underutilized, as one of the characters points out). Much like Bailey, it's a place I'd love to run away to if I could.
And that's what makes me very torn on the overall rating of this book. I'd actually rank this at 2 1/2 stars, but since Amazon can't do half stars, I rounded it to three. I think the author got so wrapped up in the world building that the main characters and the story were left to suffer. I love the circus setting itself, as well as the idea of two magicians duking it out and disguising their real magic powers as average illusions....but the idea could've been executed better. As it stands, it's a confusing plot with either wooden characters that get too much focus, or enjoyable characters that receive too little focus. If you're into steampunk and/or magic/fantasy, feel free to give this one a shot, but this is one book I probably won't pick up again. If nothing else, the magical circus is the best part.