Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is about two dueling magicians dueling it out in a circus setting. The, uh, the circus happens at night. It’s a night circus. What happened is that there were these two cranky old dudes wanting to see who was smarter, and they each took a protegee, and when the protegees grew up they were to engage in a Massive Magic Battle until one of them won. The consequences for the loser were not stated directly but were strongly implied to be Dire. Celia works as an illusionist at the circus that Marco (kind of) runs. They are competitors but WILL THEY FALL IN LOVE?

(Is it spoiling anything to say that yes, they obviously will?)

In case I haven’t said it recently, I am a plot girl. I am a plot girl down to the ground. After that I am a character girl, and in absolute last place am I a settings girl. I can appreciate settings, but that’s not what I’m reading the book for, you know? A setting is for stuff to happen in, and characters are for stuff to happen to. The Night Circus is not a plot book, or if it is then I failed at reading it because I can’t even remember what happened at the end. It is not a character book, because none of the characters seemed to have actual personalities, just things they were able to contribute to the circus. It’s a setting book, y’all. That is not the way to my heart.

And look, I’m not having a go at Erin Morgenstern. Plots are hard! Complicated plots that stretch over many years are even harder. You have to be attentive to all the details and mindful of what everybody’s doing and what everybody wants, and that is challenging, and we are not all J. K. Rowling. Who I know is not the champion writer of all the world, what with the adverbs and the caps locks of rage, but she wrote damn good characters who participated in a damn good plot in a damn good setting.

(You know how sometimes you don’t even realize you are feeling defensive but all of a sudden out of nowhere you’re twenty words into a heated defense of someone or something that nobody is attacking, and then you’re like, Wait, I should stop this before it gets weird? So you stop? But secretly you want to keep on defending whatever it was you were defending, because you’ve sort of built up a head of steam about it? To the point where you want to get up on your soapbox and be like, The gift of plotting is undervalued in this world!, even though this has nothing to do with whatever you were talking about before you started feeling defensive? And you can’t quite let it go so you find a way to say it anyway? You know how that sometimes happens?)

I should say that Erin Morgenstern is aces at setting. Most times if a book appears to be a setting book, I will put it gently down and never return. The Night Circus kept me interested in spite of the slow-moving plot and the underdeveloped characters, because the descriptions of the circus are fantastic. They are evocative and cool and endlessly creative. You could imagine dozens of other stories happening in the circus setting (like, if Erin Morgenstern ever gets it into her head to write a story about the Reveurs, I would be all over that), and that was enough to keep my attention. Plus the circus reminded me of the very cool play I saw with Teresa in May. I later discovered that Erin Morgenstern drew inspiration from the people who originated Sleep No More, and that made me feel clever.

But really? I’m a plot girl. Plot’s where my heart’s at. I will read Beau Geste, in all its spectacular cracked-out lunacy, a hundred times before I die, and I will never look at The Night Circus again.

34 thoughts on “Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

  1. Ok, I agree with you completely, and even though I loved this book, Aarti and I picked apart what worked and didn’t work over email, and I discovered that she was totally right. The wasn’t a plot or character book, and a lot of the feelings I had about it came from my own head, making connections and drawing out inferences that may or may not have been there at all. It was a great setting book though, and there were endless scenes and props that I fell in love with. A strange mix of the surreal and electrifying, but not a plot or character book by a long shot. By the way, I love, love, love your reviews, and that paragraph about getting defensive? Simply brilliant.

  2. So…this is basically The Illusionist? (I don’t know, I never actually saw the movie, I’m just judging by the trailer). I think I’m mostly a character girl, and secondarily a settings and a plot girl in equal amounts, but yes: there are times when just one, or the particular combination of some of those elements, just isn’t enough. The circus as setting does have a peculiar sort of appeal to me, though.

    Also, I get into heated defensiveness about things that no one’s actually attacking, like, every day. So that part made me laugh 🙂

  3. I heard her speak on a panel about imaginary worlds and there was a fair bit of discussion about the possibility that the main character is the circus. Knowing that, going into it, I think I might enjoy the novel more than I would have with my set of initial expectations. I’m still interested in reading it, but don’t feel the pull to do so that a lot of readers seem to be experiencing over it. Or maybe it’s just that there are too many other books on the stack today…

    • That is a cool thing! The circus definitely is a main character in the book, and it’s an excellent character. On the other hand, you know, circuses can’t do a lot of the good things characters can do, like care about things and have interests and get into scrapes. And that’s what makes characters cool.

  4. I have this next on my stack. And now my expectations are tempered, so I’ll probably like it better than I would have if I’d gone into it hoping for plot (always my main wish– I have to agree with you there) or character.

  5. I’m somewhat interested in reading this almost entirely on the strength of Morgenstern saying Punchdrunk’s work inspired her to write it. A Punchdrunk-Theatre-esque novel sounds good to me! And as I think about it, Sleep No More was more about setting than about story or characters. You knew there was a story and who some of the characters were, but following the story wasn’t necessary to the experience.

    • Well, sure, but it’s more fun to experience something than to read about it, be it ever so well described. I missed a plot. I wanted lots of plot to go with the excellent setting.

  6. I’n not a setting girl but this book mostly won me over with it. The idea of the circus and the types of magic were so creative but there were so many questions unanswered.

    • The types of magic were wonderfully creative, I was very impressed with that aspect of the book. I could never have thought of all those different tents and illusions!

  7. I have a tepid interest in this one and I don’t know why. All the reviews and descriptions I’ve read keep shouting that it’s for me — setting girl right here! — but something keeps me from buying it. I don’t know what that something is.

    • Really? You are a setting girl? Can you tell me what it is about the setting that makes it maximally important?

      (Also, buying is not the only option. The library is always your friend.)

  8. I’ve been wondering whether to get this book for a while. I used to read a lot of fey, magic-realist stuff and over-dosed on Angela Carter a couple of decades ago. This book sounded a lot like the sort of thing she might write (she actually wrote a book called ‘Nights at the Circus’) so maybe not.

    Beau Geste? Seriously?

  9. I have seen this book splashed all over the internets. But I am one hundred percent in your camp. I love plot and characters, and however authors make those work together is good by me. When the situation is as good as it gets, I am never going to be hooked. So, I will thank you for your sage advice and avoid this one.

  10. Nothing to do with the book, but: the other night I was taking an acrobatics class from a very enthusiastic teacher who kept exclaiming various things whenever someone did something well, and “aces!” was one of the things he exclaimed numerous times over the course of class, which totally made me think of this entry, which totally made me amused.

  11. Huzzah for the contrary voice! I mean, I loved the Night Circus, BUT I like how well you articulate what you didn’t enjoy with this book – namely the weak plotting.

    ALSO HOLY CRAP when I get on a defending something roll from atop my soap box, it’s really really hard to climb down, so yes that one paragraph totes spoke to me, because you described something I experience probably once a week ha ha.

  12. I was completely sucked in by the amazing work she did with the setting and then got 2/3 of the way through and was thinking…huh? Either the editing was shite or she just couldn’t pull it off.

    I also was confused at how we were supposed to see this as a ‘dark’ story as we got further in but from the begining it was fantastic and luminous….then one of the twins starts to questions what’s going on and then the two old guys are really evil?? Very poorly developed characters, but if she re- wrote it to better develop them and the plot, I would give it another read. I can’t recommend it in the state it’s in now.

    But the visuals were AMAZING. Truly.

  13. Pingback: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern « The Sleepless Reader

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