The Night Circus is a phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an ahistorical Victorian London in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams, features such wonders and “ethereal enigmas” as a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor. The circus has no set schedule, appearing without warning and leaving without notice; they travel in a train disguised as an ordinary coal transport. A network of devoted fans styling themselves “rêveurs” develops around the circus; they identify to each other by adding a splash of red to garb that otherwise matches the characteristic black and white of the circus tents. The magical nature of the circus is occluded under the guise of legerdemain; the illusionist truly transforms her jacket into a raven and the fortune teller truly reads the uncertain future, and both are applauded for their ingenuity.
The circus serves a darker purpose beyond entertainment and profit. The magicians Prospero the Enchanter and the enigmatic Mr. A.H— groom their young proteges, Celia and Marco, to proxy their rivalry with the exhibits as a stage. Prospero teaches his daughter to hone her innate talents by holding ever larger and more complex magical workings in her mind. Celia takes her position on the game board as the illusionist who makes true transformations, adding tents and maintaining wondrous aspects from the inside. Mr. A.H— trains his orphan ward with books in the ways of glyphs and sympathetic magic and illusory worlds that exist only in the mind of the beholder. Marco takes a position as majordomo to the producer of the circus; he works from the outside in, connected to the circus but not a part of it. The two beguile the circus goers and each other with nightly wonders, soon falling in love despite being magically bound to a deadly competition with rules neither understands; the magical courtship strains the fate laid out for them and endangers the circus that has touched the lives of so many and cannot survive without the talents of both players.
I’m grateful to Kirinjirafa for recommending this book to me (even before she blogged it), because it transported me out of my lately mundane day-to-day routine into a world of magic and beauty. I was so enthralled with the book that I read it in tiny morsels, a chapter at a time, savoring every sentence. I’m not even sure how to convey how much I love this book.
Here are my favorite passages:
The striped canvas sides of the tent stiffen, the soft surface hardening as the fabric changes to paper. Words appear over the walls, typeset letters overlapping handwritten text. Celia can make out snatches of Shakespearean sonnets and fragments of hymns to Greek goddesses as the poetry fills the tent. It covers the walls and the ceiling and spreads out over the floor. And then the tent begins to open, the paper folding and tearing. The black stripes stretch out into empty space as their white counterparts brighten, reaching upward and breaking apart into branches. “Do you like it?” Marco asks, once the movement settles and they stand within a darkened forest of softly glowing, poem-covered trees.
As the light from the trees increases, it becomes so bright that Celia closes her eyes. The ground beneath her feet shifts, suddenly unsteady, but Marco puts a hand on her waist to keep her upright. When she opens her eyes, they are standing on the quarterdeck of a ship in the middle of the ocean. Only the ship is made of books, its sails thousands of overlapping pages, and the sea it floats upon is dark black ink. Tiny lights hang across the sky, like tightly packed stars bright as sun. “I thought something vast would be nice after all the talk of confined spaces,” Marco says.
If you haven’t already read it, buy your copy here.