Has magic ever been less fun than this? I thought the whole point of fantasy was to imagine a world without traditional limitations. I used to fantasize about having the power of teleportation (still do, truth be told) In an instant I could see any of the wonders of the world without needing to pack my bags or get felt up at the airport! Magic is supposed to be liberating.
Not so in Erin Morganstern’s Night Circus, where magic kind of sucks. It confines those who wield it, and destroys those who are touched by it. Main characters Celia and Marco possess fantastic abilities: she manipulates material objects, and he creates illusions in peoples’ minds. What a blast, right?
Not so much. Their childhoods are completely ruined by sociopathic parental figures who subject them to rigorous programs of "training" to hone their talents. "What sort of training?" you might ask. Oh, the usual stuff… Celia’s dad- a famous magician who goes by the stage name "Prospero"- likes to slice her fingers open so she can learn to magically heal. He also breaks every bone in her wrist with a glass paperweight for the same reason. What do you get a guy like that for Fathers’ Day? Marco’s guardian- the mysterious magical sadist "Alexander H." isn’t nearly so violent. He just keeps Marco locked in a room for ten years with no human contact. Kid’s gotta learn.
That’s horrible! What could drive two old sorcerers to treat these children so poorly?
Necessity, of course. It’s preparation. Some day, those kids will be glad they got all this training, because it so happens Prospero and Alexander made a pact back when these kids were tots: that one day they would duel to the death. Nice. And it’s not just an agreement; it’s a promise made official with a magical seal, one which robs the kids of any free will to refuse. Should Celia or Marco contemplate declining the challenge, their thoughts are met with an unbearable, immobilizing pain. Something about this reminds me of the decapitating collars prisoners wore in that movie The Running Man. Pretty fucked up, huh? Well, we’re just getting started.
To provide a forum for the magical conflict, Prospero and Alexander get a mortal man, Chandresh Christophe Lefevre - a theatrical producer- to develop the titular night circus. When I say they "get him" to do this, it isn’t clear whether they merely ask him, or whether they convince him, or (which is more likely) they use magic powers to make him. Unfortunately this book is filled to the brim with instances where magic is used to mess with peoples’ brains. Spells and charms are applied liberally to confuse, to make people forget things, make them lose their train of thought, make them go temporarily deaf, etc … all for the convenience of scheming magicians. Even the more sympathetic conjurers like Celia appear completely unconcerned by these frequent unconsented violations of people’s most private inner selves. It‘s disturbing how prevalent these mental rapes are, and that nobody cares much that they are going on. Even worse: it is revealed that a human brain cannot withstand repeated magical interference without deteriorating. By the end of the book, Mr. Lefevre has been living among magical circus folk for over fifteen years, and has been subjected to so many incantations that his ravaged mind has descended into a perpetual haze of early-onset dementia. It makes the middle portion of this book a real downer.
Well, at least there’s a battle between the two young magicians to keep things interesting, right? Right?
No, sorry. If you were picturing an action-packed showdown filled with telekinetic spectacle and supernatural pyrotechnics, you will be sorely disappointed. The competition drags on for sixteen years, and consists of one side or the other doing some little arts-and-crafts projects with their sorcery. No.. I’m serious. Marco will be like
"Hey, did you notice that little garden of flowers sculpted out of ice? I did that with magic, as part of our duel to the death." Then Celia will go back to her room and freak out about it for a while, then, like two years later, she’ll counterpunch by conjuring an enchanted tree. Visitors to the circus make wishes, then light tiny candles tied to the tree’s branches. I guess the circus has lax fire codes. Anyhow, the tree presumably grants the wishes (?) I don’t know; the author didn’t think that detail was important to include.
Even the most comic and absurd mind would have difficulty seeing how this constitutes a "duel to the death", but the novel’s characters take it deadly serious, and they’re all like "Whoa! This duel to the death is getting out of hand! Somebody needs to put an end to the madness!!" It is never at all clear how building ice sculptures and wishing wells is supposed to result in anybody’s untimely demise, but -you know- it’s only the centerpiece of the entire story, so there’s no need to go into a lot of tiresome detail about it. I mean, if the author explains that, next you’ll be wanting to know what the point of this duel was to begin with, and that is never explained. Two magicians get their kids to kill each other… you’d think there’d be a prize at the end, like maybe immortality, or the ultimate power in the universe, or something like that… maybe it could be a battle between the ultimate Good and Evil? Nope; it's just a bunch of stuff that happened.
The other big plot point is the romance which develops between Celia and Marco. Naturally, right? He’s a guy, she’s a girl, they’re magicians bound by a mystical spell to kill each other… what did you expect?
If you’re into this sort of stuff, maybe it doesn’t sound so bad, but you’ll still have to deal with Ms. Morganstern’s incredibly irritating storytelling. The narration is heavy on elaborate descriptions of what color everything is, and if you hadn’t guessed from the book’s cover, everything is black and white. Well, a few things aren’t black and white, so you know they’re extra important, and their non-blackness or -whiteness is undoubtedly significant in some overstated way.
Don’t get me wrong; I like descriptive writing… but the heavy-handed symbolism here is just so artless. Most of it is almost certainly some species of Freemasonic Grand Poobah bullshit.
...Which leads in nicely to my next complaint: the excessive and overblown melodramatic cloak-and-dagger secrecy which pervades nearly all the action. Hardly a scene goes by without one character giving a cryptic, evasive answer to some mundane question; or a meaningful wink and nod to some other character in on a secret; or inwardly laughing to themselves when speaking to someone who isn't "in the know". Don’t believe me? It was absolutely no trouble to come up with a dozen examples of this smug self-important nonsense.(show spoiler)
I understand the desire to create a sense of mystery, but it’s just so overdone. The cumulative effect of all this coquettish wordplay was not heightened curiosity, but rather irritation and a sense that I was being kept at arm’s length from the characters. I suppose mystery novels and other works keep readers in the dark until the end too, but here it just seems very coy and condescending, because it seems to lord over the reader the fact that (s)he isn‘t in on the secret.
A good example is one dinner party scene, where narration goes on and on and on and on about how wonderful the food is, and how it’s a burst of exquisite taste with every bite, and nobody has ever experienced cuisine quite this flavorful before… but the reader never learns, in even a general sense, what it is the guests are eating. Was I supposed to fill in the details with my imagination here, because each person is different, and the point is just that the food was wonderful, not so much as what it specifically was? Sorry, I don’t buy it; the author is trying to pass off vagueness as a "sense of mystery", and it doesn’t work. If it did, perhaps the entire story could just be "It was the most wonderful, magical story of all time" on the front page, and the rest of the book could be blank, and then I could just fill in my own details to make it the most wonderful story, right? Not for $14.99; no thanks.
In another instance, Morganstern sets up a very dramatic scene, where a woman whose sister was murdered asks Celia what she knows about it. The situation is quite tense and delicate, because Celia has information, but cannot pass it, even though she’d like to, because of the web of secrets she is bound to hold. I was actually engaged reading this, dying to see what Celia could possibly say to this woman. What did I get?
Celia places her glass on its saucer. She explains as best she can. She keeps the details vague, covering only the basic concept of the challenge, and how the circus functions as the venue. How certain people know more than others on every level, though she chooses not to name each individual and makes it clear that even she does not have all the answers.
In case you don’t recognize it as such, that is a big "fuck you" to the readers who are bothering to read the book because they presumably want to hear the story in full detail. It was at precisely this paragraph that the editor should have asked Ms. Morganstern what career she would pick if she couldn’t be a writer any more.
Let’s just move on. I still want to complain about all the puffy self-conscious pomp-and-circumstance. There are about a hundred dinner parties in this book, and each one of them is steeped in such fussy pretentiousness, it is barely readable. Take one of Lefevre’s hoity toity soirees: Morganstern sets the mood: "Always precisely at midnight, at the moment the grandfather clock in the foyer begins to chime, the first plates are placed at the table…" Aw, fuck; get over yourselves. "An invitation to a Midnight Dinner is coveted in certain circles…" Yeah? Like who? Who would want to hang out with this vacuous bunch of arrogant mincing posers? Debutantes and prettyboys? Syphilitic circus groupies? Grab-ass dandies trying to hobnob with the cool necromancer set? Gimme a break. “They are selective, these dinners. Though occasionally there may be as many as thirty people, there are often as few as five…" Ugh! I just can’t take 400+ pages of these self-important ninny douchebags. Magicians or not, they’re insufferable - every one of them, and I would gladly take a dump in the pot where they cook their super-secret most wonderful-tasting cuisine-which-shall-not-be-named.
So how does this turd end? A sort-of deus, sort-of ex machina intervenes. The star-crossed lovers tweak the rules of the competition so they won’t have to kill each other. Isn’t that how lovers’ deathmatches always end? Or didn’t you read The Hunger Games?