Set at the beginning of the 20th century, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, is, at its core, a star-crossed love story. Celia and Marco are two magician prodigies who, at an early age, are chosen by their parents to compete against one another in a contest of magical skill, which is to end with the death of one participant. The stage for their competition is an enchanted big top called Le Cirque de Rêves, an entity that moves from place to place without warning and is open only at night. When Celia and Marco inadvertently meet and fall in love, the situation takes on a greater degree of gravity: It is one thing for a magician to dispose of a rival while in pursuit of a dynastic vainglory. It is quite another to cast the spell that will deliver your sworn love to a permanent end.
Morgenstern’s approach in describing these extraordinary circumstances is compelling, if occasionally wanting for psychological detail. Likable as Celia and Marco are, their motivations feel confusing and indistinct: The proportion between their extreme passions and how little time they’ve spent together feels off. Equally frustrating is the nature of the ongoing magic competition. While they outdo one another through the exotic manipulation of space and time (bringing a carousel of mystical animals to life, for example), these gestures hardly seem capable of killing a fellow magician. And as Morgenstern provides no villains, it is difficult to understand for whom we are supposed to be rooting.
Morgenstern makes up for these shortcomings with an exquisite attention to detail, painting a lush landscape for her characters to play in. All in all, The Night Circus possesses hallmarks of a pending cultural phenomenon, one with the potential to captivate the Harry Potter crowd, while retaining emotional ballast enough to engage fans not inclined toward fantasy literature.
The Night Circus Random House, published Mon 3 Oct, RRP $32.95