"When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in many ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words...There are many kinds of magic, after all."
Considering I was actually going to give this one a pass, the handwriting was on the wall when I received two signed copies in the mail. It was at that point pretty much preordained that I would have to read this book. After finishing it, I was a bit taken aback after reading several reviews of this book at just how nasty people became when reviewing it. As the paragraph quoted above states, "it's in the listener and for each and every ear it will be different." The book is not without its problems, but when all is said and done, it's a charming little story that will keep you reading.
Moving through the late 19th and early 20th centuries and throughout the world, the novel focuses on the lives of two "illusionists," Celia and Marco. Celia's father, Prospero the Enchanter (aka Hector Bowen) passes on his knowledge of performing illusions that are not really stage magic -- they're the real thing, teaching Celia "enchanting, or forcibly manipulating the universe;" Marco's guardian, Mr. A H, takes him from the orphanage and sets Marco to the task of learning, among other things, how to manipulate perception. But rather than being the object of their parents' affections, Celia and Marco are more like pawns to be used to further the ambitions of their mentors. The fathers have their own unique methods of child raising and teaching: Hector Bowen slices Celia's fingers or smashes her wrists to teach her how to fix things, while Marco is left on his own in a bizarre form of home schooling learning the secrets of the universe and doesn't even know his guardian's name. Each is being groomed to become the opponent of the other (although they don't know it) as a part of an ongoing, strange competition between the fathers. The venue for this contest is the Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams), "Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment." What neither Celia nor Marco know is that beyond this strange contest, the stakes are high, not just for the loser (which is bad enough), but for everyone concerned with the circus itself.
The Cirque des Rêves is ultimately at the center of this book, and the imagery set forth by author makes it a magical place. It can appear anywhere at any time, populated with a tarot reader, a contortionist, aerial performers who do their acts with no nets, and more otherworldly kind of people. There are also magical, elaborately-constructed rooms through which people can walk and take part in the action. The Cirque des Rêves even has a cadre of diehard fans, known as "rêveurs," who, through a connection on the inside, are able to follow the circus to its next location, sporting red scarves over their dark or grey clothing that stick out in a scene where everything is black and white. The circus is only open at night, and is nearly impossible to experience in one visit.
The Night Circus is very much an atmospheric novel, depending more on its imagery than on plot. The settings, from dinner parties to the circus, are all rather surreal and you never know what's going to happen at any given time, or how things are going to change from one moment to another. There is a wealth of description and imagery that never lets up, especially regarding the circus, and there are undertones of mystery that run throughout. I'm not a huge fan of love stories, so the love interest didn't really grab me, but there was something different in the at-times ethereal oddness of this particular novel that captured my attention, as did the stories of Celia and Marco's sad childhood. At the same time, I wasn't as captivated with the characters as I thought I probably should have been. I actually liked some of the side characters (Thiessen, Chandresh, Isobel) much better than the main ones because they had more substance than the principals. There's also one character who seems to have been thrown in as a convenient plot device to save the ending of this novel, whch just didn't play right with me. Considering how much effort the author went to in her descriptions, it's mystifying as to why the characters weren't fleshed out as much as they could have been! Another thing: although I tend not to mind so much when questions within a story are not answered, some of the holes left in the plot made me scratch my head now and then. But getting past the naysaying, I was not about to put this book down once I started it, and it had a way of holding my attention and drawing me forward to the finish.
This book should really be read by people who are into love stories -- I think that group will likely be its best audience. At the same time, there's something unique about the imagery that conjures up pictures in your head of how the Cirque des Rêves might actually look and what you might experience there that will keep anyone reading. Overall -- a good book with a few issues, but one that will take you away for a while as you read it.