I think the best way to describe The Night Circus would be The Prestige meets Neil Gaiman. The basic premise is that of two magicians who are trapped by their mentors in a battle of skill that neither of them fully understands. The arena for the challenge is the titular circus, which, (you guessed it!), only come out at night, and each move in the battle as it were is, is the creation or improvement of an aspect of the circus. Except everything goes awry when the two magicians fall in love and try to find a way to escape their inevitable fates.
Unfortunately, the idea is better than the execution. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about the story. The description of the circus is very good, the Rêveurs, the society that grows up around it is an interesting concept, and the plot itself is enough to keep me interested over the course of a novel without losing my interest. I’d say the best aspect was the contest itself, and the lack of clearly defined (or at least revealed) rules and end goals was a good way of keeping the mystery. It would have been more effective if Morgenstern hadn’t overlaboured this fact at multiple opportunities, but then again that is forgivable as it makes sense in terms of plot. The magic system (or perhaps systems, as after all the contrast is the point of the novel) is a strong point. In a way it’s quite similar to the dichotomous approaches in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which is nothing like the Night Circus otherwise, but is one of my favourite books, so I would absolutely recommend you read it!), one rigid and academic, the other much more fluid and naturalistic.
But it all just feels too gimmicky. Much in the same way that I’ve heard people criticise Gaiman’s work (though I’ve never felt it to be a particularly bad thing in his case) The Night Circus just seems a little too self-aware to come across as sincere, and worse, though we are continually told how wonderfully enchanting the circus is, I just didn’t feel it. In fact, I really didn’t care, and the Rêveurs frankly made me feel a bit awkward times, much as I imagine most of us would feel running into people who would drop everything to go and experience a circus and organised themselves in clandestine groups. The most disappointing disappointment as it were is the narrative style. There are effectively three stories being told, that of the contest and circus which begins in the late 19th century and continues sporadically throughout, the experiences of a young visitor named Bailey, which joins up with the other plotline in the early 20th century, and a 2nd person narrations threaded between the two telling us what we would be experiencing on a visit to the circus. But it just doesn’t work. Bailey, I feel, is intended to be the everyman, but he comes off as even more flat than the other characters and though he turns out to be important, he’s so bland that for most of his plotline, I was just bored by him.
So in spite of all this, why have I given it a 4 out 5? Well, I have been harsh, but only because I expected better. I don’t know why, I didn’t have anything to base this expectation on, but I did. If I had come to the story without a high expectation, or if I was younger, or I hadn’t read any other fantasy/magic-realism, then I would probably have enjoyed it more. So in this instance the rating is taking this into account.