The United States and Europe, between 1873 and at least 1903. Two magicians enter into a wager; they are to train apprentices in magic and have them contest each other over time. The forum for the bet is to be a travelling fair, a circus that travels by train and arrives, unannounced, in the night. The neophytes, initially unaware that they are in competition with each other, begin to fall in love. A child, Bailey, becomes besotted with the circus and is desperate to find out more.
The Night Circus has a certain kind of atmosphere going for it, a touch dreamlike, a little whimsical, at least initially intriguing. There are whiffs of Ray Bradbury, Susannah Clarke, Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman in the writing, plot and imagery, and for die-hard fans of magical fantasy there may be much that’s worthwhile here.
For some, though, the touch may be too light. Not a great deal happens. The love story is obvious rather than inevitable, and there aren’t secrets worth finding out. Initial hints of darkness turn out to be shadows of the novel’s influences rather than those cast by The Night Circus instead. The period settings are background here; there’s nothing gained by the novel being set in the past (it probably loses by not having the magical elements being juxtaposed against the present day).
It’s lightweight stuff then; a story for children stretched out over four hundred pages. The fault may well be with me – I like my meat rarer than this – but this is cotton candy; initially impressive, but sweet, cloying, insubstantial.
Morgenstern, Erin. 2012. The Night Circus (London: Vintage), 496 pages, 978-0099554790