One of the hottest fiction releases of 2011 was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I read some articles about it last year in The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly about how it received a huge marketing push, Morgenstern was well compensated for a first book, and the movie rights were already sold to create a huge franchise. “This could be the next Harry Potter!” I was told.
But it’s not.
The Night Circus‘s great appeal is in its visual storytelling. Even the book covers of its various editions are impeccable and represent Morgenstern’s talent for striking descriptions. Just about every chapter includes a clear image of either someone’s clothing, a dessert, or the entertainments of the night circus. Some combination of fabric, chocolate, and magical flame will take hold of your imagination, and I am sure these images will make for a grand movie spectacle, as well.
The magic is also easy to picture: Morgenstern’s magicians use illusions without bringing the reader too far behind the curtain to know how everything works. If a character heals cuts on her fingers with telepathy, then that is all the reader needs to know and Morgenstern is happy to omit any Latin spellcasting or bejeweled wands. I enjoyed letting the magicians wield automatic, mysterious magic. How they use the magic says more about their character than the existence of magic, anyway.
About halfway through the book, however, I started to lose touch with the cast. Maybe Morgenstern’s narrative jumped forward and backward through time too often. Maybe I’d had enough of the Starbucksian descriptions in which everything involves vanilla, chocolate, ice, cinnamon, clover, or some other fancy coffee ingredient. One thing is for certain: the dry characters had lost their appeal. Even by the time a romance entered the story, neither love interest felt compelling enough to care about. There’s a scene described as, “there was a boisterous mood in the room.” Thanks for the info! And thanks for every character trying to out-dandy everyone else. I loved reading about the Victorian-Romantic manners and outfits (this book could spark its own convention of cosplayers and merchandisers), but after a certain point the book’s world feels like a dinner theater where the murderer is just a member of the audience and nothing is really at stake. Insert joke about corsets.
A large chunk of the book serves as an epilogue for other characters who were not fleshed out nearly enough for the treatment they were given, unless a sequel revisits everyone. Imagine if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ended with 70 pages explaining how Neville Longbottom became class president and made up his own business cards.
But then, that’s the difference between Morgenstern and Rowling. One put us in the head of a boy in a magical world. The other just led a tour of a castle.