'The Night Circus': A Bewitching Premise, but Too Much Sleight of Hand

The Night Circus at its best reads like a lovechild between the illusionists’ rivalry in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and the teenage contenders cum romantic team in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

The Night Circus

Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 400 pages
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-09

I’m always more than a little cautious when a new creative work is branded as “the next Harry Potter.” It’s a big statement. On what grounds can you base such a claim? Nobody ever predicted the success of the Potter series—the dozens of publishers who rejected Rowling’s boy wizard pitch can tell you as much. Sales popularity, media hysteria, and fan devotion each contributed to Potter securing its legacy, and none of those things apply to a first novel hot off the presses.

These facts notwithstanding, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, has been trumpeted pre-publication as one such book. But where J.K. Rowling’s awe-inspiring series of novels about a “boy who lived” are the defining cultural texts of a generation, Morgenstern’s novel, absorbing as it is, will never become a blockbuster book on a direct path to inspiring readers worldwide. Sure, Summit Entertainment already has the movie rights, but Harry Potters are one in a million, and few ever obtain just that right combination of ingredients to become a mass cultural phenomenon.

Both the Harry Potter series and The Night Circus are tales of magic, but that’s about where the similarities end. The Night Circus at its best reads like a lovechild between the illusionists’ rivalry in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and the teenage contenders cum romantic team in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, if such a lovechild were also co-written by Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Set in the late 1800s and into the turn of the century, The Night Circus houses magic, obsession, and romance under its big top, and sets the stage for two lovers who must also face off as rivals in a supersized version of the most basic component of witchcraft stories: the duel.

At the age of five, Celia Bowen is sent to live with her father Hector, more commonly known by his stage name as Prospero the Enchanter. A performing illusionist by trade and a real magician in truth, Prospero peddles his very real and very skilled magic to the world of theatre as expert sleight of hand. Realizing his daughter shares his gifts, Prospero, failing to live up to his role as guardian, presents Celia to Mr. A. H--, a mysterious rival of Prospero’s who burns a scar into her finger with a blisteringly hot ring, thus bonding her to a vaguely understood competition of magical wherewithal for which she later learns there will be no way out except through victory or death. Mr. A. H— soon after plucks a young boy named Marco from an orphanage to rigidly train him throughout his childhood and adolescence as Celia’s eventual opponent.

Both Prospero and Mr A. H— are essentially the antagonists of the novel, acting as two sparring sides of one coin, but Morgenstern never squarely explores their motive or intent for pitting innocents against each other for sport; the ambiguity hanging over the duel as much as these men prevents their conflict from ever becoming bigger than a minor subplot without a conclusion. Instead, the novel’s romantic angle takes center stage, and this greater struggle already hiding murkily below the surface gets swept further out of focus.

As a matter of requirement in the competition, Celia and Marco are tethered to a pre-determined venue which will allow them to carry out their duel. Once having matured into adults, both find themselves employed by a circus company whose development was spurred by Mr. A. H—. This marvel of timeless entertainment makes it easy to luxuriate in the imagery manifested by Morgenstern’s vivid, succinct prose; her sentences turn ink on a page into nearly sensorial experiences. There’s no doubt she has a gift.

Abstractly, Celia and Marco engage in the duel by performing their magic through increasingly elaborate and fantastical designs for the circus. Instead of launching fireballs from the tips of wands, or waving hands around, their duel is essentially metaphysical. A blow is theoretically struck by the creativity and degree of difficulty involved in the invention of new and more wondrous circus attractions, which themselves are a showcase for Morgenstern’s ingenious vision. Hers is a vision that will likely register strikingly on film once Morgenstern’s rich description is adapted for the screen.

The Night Circus proves to be a dazzlingly descriptive and highly imaginative entry in a genre already crowded with spellcasters—no small feat. But its lack of urgency and avoidance of conflict registers as dull and barely smoldering. For all of its flare, the novel remains all plot and no structure with an abundance of ideas bearing no real dimension. It’s 90 percent setup for a magical duel about as tense and thrilling as a single puff of smoke that gives way to romantic crisis that is, like most romances tend to be, no real crisis at all.

With a thickening agent absent from the plot, Morgenstern has crafted something more akin to a tedious Gothic soap opera than a taught thriller about dueling young lovers and those behind the scenes trying to destroy them. She engages with a Dickensian sprawl of periphery characters, some better developed than others, and indeed the black- and white-striped world of the circus often displays more color than any of the utility characters introduced.

Morgenstern was reportedly quite far along with the book before she even figured out who her main character would be, and that lack of direction shows. Switching between multiple viewpoints with each chapter and never quite setting up stakes for the characters, the novel chugs along at a bland pace without exigency, fueled by the sensation that something big is always about to happen, but never really does. It’s such an absence of energy that a minor character has to get involved in the duel just because she’s tired of watching it drag on without anything happening.

If only she hadn’t waited so many years in the story’s timeline before acting. The ending is convoluted to say the least, suffering from an inability to eloquently execute the vast wealth of good ideas that were assembled in the preceding pages. For a book about magic, too much of it turned out to be sleight of hand.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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