The Night Circus

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern This might be a little bit of a difficult review for me to write.

I've been wanting to read The Night Circus for a long time now, well over a year, but a series of circumstances prevented me from doing so. Mainly, my local library is not well stocked at all, and I was too lazy to buy it whenever I went near a book-store. So yes.

However, in order to celebrate moving successfully (and the lack of a good internet connection ensuring I'd be spending a LOT more of my time reading instead of gaming) I thought I'd buy it for my Kobo and finally read it through.

I'd skimmed through the Amazon reviews for it some time ago, and the fact that a lot of people either rated it through the roof and sung its praises, or absolutely vice versa, told me a lot about this book, but neither sets of ratings made me want to finally sit down and read it any less.

I have a confession to make. There are a few things in this world that I absolutely cannot resist, no matter what – hunters in World of Warcraft, going for drives at night, anything monochrome, and anything circus-y. The Night Circus had half of those things. Well, half and a bit if you count the night part of driving at night.

That was part of the extreme pull I felt towards the story. I desperately wanted it to be breath-taking, to enchant me and to pull me into this alternate universe where I could close my eyes and imagine myself walking amongst those striped tents. The fact that I managed to not blind myself with my own desires for the story, and keep my head clear for reading, is something I'm a bit proud of, not gonna lie.

The very first thing I noticed while reading The Night Circus was the funky present tense. I can't recall having read anything that was set like that before, and it took the longest time for it to not just confuse and unsettle me. Even at the end of the book it stood out very strongly at times, and distracted me from the story itself. I got a strong Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell vibe from it as well, and I wonder if the author hadn't read it and taken some inspiration from it beforehand.

The chapters written in second-person had the same affect on me. Once the sense of feeling a little unnerved had passed, I thought it was a nifty little addition, something to help the reader feel more immersed and attach themselves to the Circus more. That carries onto a rather large problem I had with the book.

I feel that far too much focus is spent on showing off the Circus, literally showing it to us as 'we' walk through and experience it as a character in the book would have. Not nearly enough time was devoted just to the main protagonists – Celia, Marco, Bailey, etc etc – and at the end, I felt more emotional about the Circus than I did the people involved. That's...not really a good thing, not at all. It's clear that most of these people are just as entranced with the Circus as the author wants us to be – so why not have us experience it with them? It's killing two birds with one stone: fleshing out and developing a character, and letting us experience the Circus. While I think the occasional second-person chapters would have been interesting and even refreshing, there's just too much of it.

As for the characters – despite how flat I felt most of them were, I actually really liked a lot of them. Mainly Widget, but a lot of the others did have their moments. I thought Celia was quite interesting, and felt that she had an interesting enough character, even though I honestly do feel she was lacking, and was in desperate need of some filling out. Thiessen (is that right?) was intriguing, and I really liked how his involvement in the Circus wasn't even something he was aware of at first, and how spectacularly he fell in love with all of it. I kinda wished there was a little more about Chandresh, as he did seem to be one of the more extroverted personalities. And of course, as aforementioned, Widget, who was really the first character that struck me as witty, clever and creative.

It's not really in me to dislike or god-forbid actively hate a character, but Marco came damn close to the latter. I cannot see anything attractive about him. Everything he said or did in the story made him look like a giant prick. The whole deal with Isobel? Leading her on for at least a decade even though he doesn't really care for her? What the actual fuck?

"I never once told Isobel that I loved her," Marco says. "I was young and I was desperately lonely, and I should not have let her think I felt more strongly than I did, but what I felt for her is nothing compared to what I feel for you. This is not a tactic to deceive you; do you think me that cruel?"

Uh, to me that looks awfully like Marco's trying to twist Celia bringing up him being a douche-canoe into feeling sorry for him with a veiled implication that she thinks he's a terrible person and, therefore, must be wrong and/or not so great herself since she suggested it. Not to mention he's always very clearly the one in control in their relationship; more than once while they were courting each other Celia has told him to stop, not to do something, implying that they should slow down or that she might not be ready...and yet Marco just keeps going until she capitulates. Come on. He doesn't even wear his real face most of the time, that's hardly usual and is actually a little creepy. What does Marco have to hide? Being a controlling, possibly narcissistic asshole?

I sincerely can't stand when love in stories turns into nothing more than two (or more) characters absolutely unable to breathe without the other, unable to live without the other. Love isn't perfect; you don't meet someone and then get sucked so deeply into a pit of love quicksand that you can't even function without the other person being near you. That's not love. That's obsession. It's disturbing as hell, and unrealistic unless the character 'in love' happens to be a deranged stalker.

So yes. That got to me, a lot. In my eyes you are essentially killing these characters, since they stop being themselves, fixated only on each other. And then you're looking at a mirror-reflection-in-another-mirror sort of effect, where it just keeps on going. Everything that made that character who they were was replaced by The Other Half, and The Other Half only cared about Them, and on it goes. These two characters become nothing but an ever-spinning circle of obsession.

I went from being mildly interested in Celia and loathing Marco, to just being...indifferent. I lost all interest in those characters. It's obvious to me that the former is definitely better, even with the dislike. At least I was feeling something then.

The magic system...well, isn't. That is, it doesn't seem to be a system at all, it doesn't seem to have laws or rules – at least, not ones that we can obviously see. Things are 'hard' or 'easy' depending on random factors, but...that seems to be it. There was that little section explaining how magic is secrets and such, and that sharing and teaching it makes it less powerful etc...that was pretty nifty. It at least started to give some sense to the magic in the book. But it wasn't really ever picked up again, it just sort of left it at that. The idea that magic wouldn't need a system and doesn't operate under any sorts of laws would be interesting (seems like something you'd find in a Discworld book), but I don't feel it works here. There are clearly limits to it, which is good, but it's not entirely clear what those limits are, or why they're limiting in the first place. It's very confusing and feels a little sloppy, even if it was done for the sake of mystery.

I wasn't impressed at all that the 'game' in question takes fucking forever to escalate. We don't really start learning about until the last 10-15% of the book. I can handle nothing happening with the game itself until then, but learning about it along the way, instead of at the very end, would have been a lot more interesting. It doesn't help that the reasons for the game strike me as vain and shallow. Did it start with you two dudes playing with people's lives and literally getting one of them killed, or did your bitch-slapping get so extreme that it escalated until that was all that would satisfy you? Are you even human? How does that not disturb you? Mr A. H –, you actually express sadness for Marco when he tells you that he's in love with Celia, and you tell him that'll make the game all the more difficult. It's making you sad, and you're still insistent on screwing up people by doing this? Not to mention, there's no apparent way out of the game until one is the victor. You are literally sending a person to their death because neither you nor Hector could just whip them out and measure. How is that not messed up?

A bunch of other, smaller things got to me as well. The time-line jumping backward and forward all of the time was a little confusing whenever my mind started to get into that lovely relaxed, I'm-reading-now-isn't-this-nice state. I couldn't just relax and read and let myself fall into the story because I was paying too much attention to just knowing when I was on the time-line. Every chapter name was a huge snag that was catching my attention and, at least to me, did not flow smoothly. I found myself anxious a lot of the time, constantly checking my progress in the story and specifically checking how long it would be until the next chapter. I couldn't find myself able to settle down and just read the damn book, which is a major shame.

Also – and I might be incorrect here – I'd think that at the time this book was set in, the late 1800s and early 1900s, that the majority people would not take well to a man loving another man, or a woman loving another woman. I don't think many would take well to even the implication of homosexuality. Yet, it's just accepted so easily in The Night Circus. There aren't any overt or obvious cases of it – Celia implies that Chandresh loves Marco, and Tsukiko explains how much she loved Hinata – and of course those could be taken as platonic love rather than romantic, but it doesn't change the fact that nobody batted an eyelid at those mentions, particularly Tsukiko's. Marco simply says he's sorry about it. That's it. That doesn't seem entirely right to me.

I did like a few things about The Night Circus though, and I'm glad I bought it. A lot of the descriptions of the Circus itself did invoke some very lovely imagery, though again, that could be because I am a huge sucker for anything starkly monochrome. I found myself wishing I could be there myself, in person, and not through the personification of 'myself' that a person I've never met has written. It was exactly the sort of thing I could find myself getting sucked into and losing all sense of time before stumbling away when it closes, wondering how the night passed by so quickly.

A few little things stood out to me as well, and I do wish that more of them had been sprinkled throughout the story. Mainly, learning that Tsukiko's section on the train smelled of ginger and cream, and learning later on that from Tsukiko that Hinata's skin always smelled of it. For all of Tsukiko's oddness and mysteriousness, that little detail made her seem so much more human than either Celia or Marco. (Especially Marco.) It gave me a tiny connection to this otherwise strange, almost inhuman person.

I did like this book. I did not think it necessarily deserved the hype and praise it got, and still tends to get. I don't think the technical quality of it was great, and the characters felt flat for the most part. The world-building though – and the world, in this case, is the Circus – was very good and I enjoyed it immensely. I do wish there was less focus on the Circus though, and more on the characters, and the world outside the Circus.