The Night Circus: A Dark Fantasy novel

The Night Circus: A Dark Fantasy novel

If you are looking for a dark fantasy book full of suspense, appealing characters and a mature love story, consider reading The Night Circus.

Something that brought my attention for buying the book was the fact that the author wrote this novel during two NaNoWriMo events, 2006 and 2007, managing to publish it nearly three years later. It’s always inspiring to know stories about writers who get published coming from the WriMo.

“Gates Open at Nigthfall and Close at Dawn.”

Funny enough, the blurb says this a love story. Since I never read those, it let me down halfway the read when curiosity took over me, nevertheless this description was halfway false. The romance is subtle to the point one forgets it’s there to begin with. And it makes sense, as the author still gets surprised when her book is catalogued as romance, since she considers it only an element of the novel, not the main plot.

The night circus novel by Erin Morgenstern book cover

The story focuses around two characters: Celia Bowen and Marco. The plot covers their lives from 1873, when both were about 5 or 6 years old, to 1902. It was quite refreshing to have two protagonists in their late thirties, since most fantasy stories have teenagers as the main characters.

The Night Circus is not exactly a love story, I’d describe it more like an urban fantasy (changing the urban setting for a circus). According to Erin Morgenstern herself, the circus was the main character. And it makes sense, with the description of the tents, their inner workings, and the development of the characters around the circus, the setting itself develops into the center of the plot.

What’s The Night Circus’s about?

Back in 1873, a magician called Prospero The Enchanter invites a mysterious man in a grey suit to his house in New York, to introduce him to his daughter. The girl’s mother had commited suicide, and now she was under the charge of a man she had never seen before.

The girl’s name is Celia, and she refused to change that name. Prospero never appreciated her stubborn attitude, but is impressed by her innate abilities: she was able to perform quite powerful magic at a very young age.

Magic here is portrayed as a bending of reality. Destroying and reshaping objects, altering the perceptions of the mind, healing wounds, and divination. It was quite refreshing not having to sit through a long, technical explanation of how it worked. It just did, but the author never invented things on the fly and set limits to the magic, hence making it more believable.

The visitor, whose name is never revealed but sometimes people refer to him as Mr. A. H. — or Alexandre, is impressed to some extent. And that was why Prospero had invited him, he wanted to make Celia part of a gamble.

From their exchange, they had been repeating the same bet for a long time by then, and Mr. A. H. — has won most of the times by far. He’s is a bit fed up already. But Prosper insisted, ready to sacrifice his own daughter to make a point. The visitor in the gray suit ends accepting the bet.

The conditions are to be set later, once Mr. A. H. — gets his own contestant. The venue is to decide by him as well. And once the promise has been settled, it’s the beginning of the book.

As you can imagine, the other contestant is Marco. A boy picked up from the streets by Alexandre. Different than Celia, who was an innate magician trained by her father, Marco’s didn’t have abilities whatsoever. His teacher forced him to spend most of his childhood secluded in an apartment in Germany, studying old spell books and memorizing incarnations without a rest.

And as for the third element, the venue.

“In my mind it was always a book about the circus and the things that happen in it”
Erin Morgenstern

Eventually, we get introduced to Mr. Chandesh, the owner of several theaters in London, along with a group of his most intimate friends. During a dinner night, they all decide to fund Le Cirque des Rêves. Celia Bowen and Marco get involved later in the mix. She as a magician performer, he as Chandesh’s personal assistant.

Why you should read it?

The Night Circus is a great novel that holds the suspense for a great length. It keeps you guessing what the gamble is about, because even the characters are in the dark for most part of the book.

Celia and Marco’s mentors hide from them the identity of their opponent too. It might sound ambiguous and frustrating, but Erin Morgenstern gives you on a thin line of hope: that everything will make sense eventually.

You get involved with the charming characters, despite the mesh of situations and time skips. Because there are many of those!

Some episodes happen decades between each other, they even talk about characters who seem to have no connection with the main plot. But, eventually, everything fits into place like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

A look into The Night Circus’ characters

Everyone has a trait to make them interesting and appealing, even Prospero and Mr. A. H. —, playing the role of antagonists, have a lot of charisma.

An interesting aspect of Mr. A. H. — is that he always appears wearing a gray suit. This clothing choice tells a lot about the role he plays in the story, especially considering many of the clothes for the rest of the characters in the novel are black and white color themed.

Personally, Celia and Marco were the most boring of them all. One trait about Celia that I liked was her stubbornness. She was a bit cocky, since she knew how powerful she had become as a magician. Her name is inspired by the american actress Clara Bow.

American actress Clara Bow
Clara Bow (© The Cinefiles)

Another character worth mentioning is a boy named Bailey, he appears later in the book and his story seems disconnected to the overall plot, nonetheless I never found a reason to skip his chapters.

My only gripe was Tsukiko. She’s the most stereotypical japansese character I’ve ever seen. The author went out of her way to explain her name in kanji is 月子, which is not a common japanese name to begin with.

Fun fact, in Japan, tsukiko refers to the first six days after giving birth, not moonchild as the author had interpreted. She wears kimonos and drinks tea, speaks slowly and used to live in a house surrounded by cherry blossoms. I’m not asian, but as a japanse culture fan, everything about her felt unrealistic.

And finally Le Cirque des Rêves. I think this is the element that gives the novel a touch of horror, since it opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. Appearing in places without anticipation and leaving without notice, the circus seems to have life on its own. It is a moving mishmash of tents with no respect for the laws of physics. Each tent has a different theme, while some are whimsical and romantic, some others are straight out creepy. The descriptions are very visual and long sometimes, but they are necessary to flesh out the importance of the venue. Accessing the circus is described as falling into a daze, where you are unsure if what you saw was real once you leave the circus terrain.

It is explained later that some tents have been created by Celia, while others by Marco, thus is the reason they have a touch of reality bending in each of them.

Black and white tents overview
Fanart by viveie (Deviantart)

Some chapters of the novel are dedicated to individual tents, oddly narrated in second person, making them feel unsettling. And yet, everything about those specific chapters make sense as you progress with the story!

You finished reading The Night Circus, now what?

If you are still craving for more, an adaptation movie is on the making. Summit Entertainment, owned by Lionsgate, bought the film rights. Geremy Jasper has been selected as the film’s director. Sadly, the release date is still pending.

Otherwise, if you want to experience real life the magic of The Night Circus, Sleep No More’s Boston production has been a source of inspiration for this novel.

And at last, Erin Morgenstern has a new novel: The Starless Sea. Other recommendations by the author herself include The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic: An Illustrated History by Christopher Dell and Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.

At first glance the cover led me to think it was a horror novel, black and omnious with simple shapes of a circus resting on the palm of some woman’s hand, when it’s more like a fantasy story with some shilling details. However, Erin Morgenstern declares herself an avid fan of horror and magical realism fiction, plunging into Stephen King’s classics since her early teens.


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