"The Night Circus" (Doubleday), by Erin Morgenstern: Let's go ahead and get the obvious adjectives for Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, "The Night Circus," out of the way: Magical. Enchanting. Spellbinding. Mesmerizing.
Morgenstern — in much the same way as her cast of magicians and performers might — builds a fantastic creation out of words and spells and ink and paper and the power of imagination. And like her colorful characters, she's not dealing in illusions and sleight of hand.
This is real magic.
"The Night Circus" is the story of two magicians locked in a duel to the death near the turn of the 20th century, a time when magic seems to be losing its importance to humankind. Their stage is the mysterious Le Cirque des Reves, a traveling circus filled with wonders from both this world and the one beyond.
The contestants, Celia and Marco, two fated lovers locked in a magical combat with unclear rules mostly against their will, create new attractions for the circus, each more beautiful and nuanced than the last.
One tent may contain a contortionist, another The Tree of Wishes. Acrobats perform without nets in the biggest of tents while a labyrinth full of an infinite number of rooms is contained within one of the tiniest. In one tent stories are held in containers and told in sounds and smells and memories. In another, circus-goers can relieve deep sadness by casting them with a stone into a pool of tears.
Celia is the illegitimate daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, a grand illusionist known throughout the world. Forced to live with her father after her mother's suicide, Celia immediately shows her natural gift for manipulating the world around her.
Prospero challenges an old rival, the mysterious man in the gray suit, to a contest, pitting his own daughter against a foe of the man's choosing. The man picks an orphan boy and teaches him the old way of making magic, using symbols, and spells, and the knowledge of the ages to build his illusions.
Morgenstern deftly weaves the story of the two magicians, the creation of the circus and its resulting passionate following, and the inevitable trouble that brews when things fall out of balance. She moves back and forth in time, carving both her characters and her settings with a sharp, and tasteful, eye for detail.
In its opening pages, "The Night Circus" feels a little familiar. The era, the focus and the setting have been done before — and occasionally done well. But Morgenstern quickly leaves those other stories behind, crafting something completely ... magical.