A few years ago I made a pledge to myself: Break up with books you don’t love, with ones that aren’t challenging, and with ones that languish on the floor beside the bed, their spines gradually breaking along the page where Facebook became more interesting than the story at hand. Yet weeks have passed and I didn’t want to let this one go.
Not because it was great. Not because it was interesting–its curlicued descriptions of food and clockwork and colored smoke should have been. I love magical realism, and usually have loads of patience for an inventive conceit.
Yet that’s just it: The conceit is too simple, I believe, to be inventive. A boy and a girl have a talent for altering anything they wish in the tangible world, and do so according to a romantic aesthetic (velvet dresses into ravens, and rainy days into sunny groves). The rules of magic are vague. They are arcane symbols and lots and lots of reading unless you’re gifted with pure talent, in which case, being locked up by an abusive father and forced to practice is enough. Then you’re turned loose on each other, made to subtly outdo each other’s magical feats inside the black and white tents of a traveling circus. Spectacles abound.
The two main characters are as romantic and insubstantial as their illusions. They are talented, well-dressed, genial folks with a natural but unremarkable sense of rebellion against the contest, in which they’ve been forced to compete by their respective guardians.
Overall, the novel feels well-executed, ably written, but somehow as eccentric as a harlequin’s pantomime–silently going through the motions of a novel. To me (and taste is subjective), if you are a writer with the ear, imagination, control, and training of an Erin Morgenstern, your talent can take you to deeper and more mysterious magical realms.
The Night Circus is sleight of hand. I have faith that a greater feat is in the works, however, and though I’m breaking up with this one, I look forward to her next.
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