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

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.

RATING 6 / 10