What happens when two magicians are pitted against each other in a twisted game that only aims to appease some fragile egos?
A mystifying circus appears out of nowhere in the late 1800s: looking abandoned and empty, it turns out that Les Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Night) comes alive at night. Behind the scenes, there’s a group of eccentric and talented people who make the circus a magical experience for everyone and their enthusiasts, called rêveurs (dreamers). As the curtains are drawn, a much darker secret is unveiled: Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, two trained magicians and protégés discover that they have to compete with each other against their wills—and the stakes are higher than they think.
This was such a magical book to read. It does have flowery writing but instead of thinking that it’s long-winded, I keep getting enamored by it. Comprising multiple nonlinear perspectives, the spellbinding Circus seems like it’s what dreams are made of. This is an atmospheric novel and not as action-packed as the premise might lead you to believe. Every place, scene and moment are intricately explained. It’s like taking apart a delectable cake and realising there are more ingredients than you thought – tiny details that you can’t quite place yet make the perfect combination of lusciousness. Like the circus is described, Morgenstern’s writing is “a feast for the senses”:
“you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edge of the cold.”
Morgenstern often uses gastronomy to associate the magical and hypnotic elements of the circus. Bringing the two main characters together, she draws a traumatic past from the both of them, but particularly Celia, whose father (known as Prospero the Enchanter) merely deems her a pawn in his game. He prioritizes making her into a trained magician over actually treating her like a daughter, starting by making her into a spiritual medium for the audience:
“They see her as a thing, a bridge to their lost loved ones that they so desperately cling to.”
To the chagrin of Celia and Marco’s guardians and trainers, the young magicians develop a connection together beyond rivalry. Their love for each other and the circus is presented through subtle means to most people, yet it’s whimsical and grandiose once you actually pay attention to it:
“I have been surrounded by love letters you two have built each other for years, encased in tents.”
I also enjoyed the romance aspect of it, it’s something that I don’t actively seek but appreciate when written “properly”. While the slight “love at first sight” part is not usually my preference, perhaps I was under Morgenstern’s spell (of beautiful prose, that is!). Furthermore, almost every chapter has notes that were written by a rêveur making observations pertaining to the circus, which made me feel that I was transported to a glamorized yet arcane life in the 1800s. That being said though, this is not the book for you if you prefer “more things” to happen. The duel mentioned is also not what you might expect and more inconspicuous than that, so I can imagine how some might be disappointed by the book. But if you love this kind of writing style and don’t mind the slower pace, I absolutely recommend it.