When searching for books with a dark carnival theme, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was one of the only books that looked decent and wasn't part of a huge series. I had mixed feelings about trying this one after seeing varied reviews, but I am so glad I took a chance on it.
Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Category: Cozy Read
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RATING: 3.5/5 Stars
Plot: 3/5 stars
Characters: 3/5 stars
World: 5/5 stars
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
Countless adventures can be found in Le Cirque des Rêves, but what no one knows is the circus is merely a grand stage for a mystical competition between Celia and Marco, two magicians trained from childhood for a mysterious contest they themselves do not fully understand.
The mercurial men instructing them have told them little about the contest—who their opponent is, when and where it will take place, how long it will last, or even how a winner will be decided. The entire venture is threatened when Celia and Marco begin falling in love and everything is thrown out of balance.
I had high hopes for this premise; I loved the idea of a magical duel taking place in a circus setting. However, the execution was not what I was expecting.
There doesn't seem to be much of a plot to this story, and what's there rambles and turns aimlessly, like a circus patron moving unhurriedly toward an unknown destination. The multiple points of view paired with the location and time jumps felt like loose, unconnected threads until I reached the end and saw how Morgenstern weaved them together.
While the story is (supposedly) about a contest between two magicians, it’s really about their instructors' rivalry over differing approaches to magic, the circus itself, and the people involved in its birth, destruction, and rebirth.
I was instantly curious about the main characters—the gifted children and the magicians with the audacity to wager them in a magical competition against one another. I loved the contrast between Celia’s innate magic and Marco struggling to learn his.
But it's puzzling how, for a book marketed as a romance, we see little of Celia and Marco together, especially in the first half of the book. While they undeniably have chemistry, their romance comes out of nowhere and then flops. I get that the idea is they fall in love before they know each other, by being exposed to each other's magic and seeing the creativity, wonder, and emotion that went into their works, but it just wasn't enough for me personally.
I expected more action, wizarding duels on stage before audiences, and an enemies-to-lovers vibe, and was disappointed when this was not the case. I found myself craving it, impatient and hoping for more during chapters from other characters’ perspectives—there are literally 15 POVs throughout the book.
At first, I couldn't have cared less about all the extra perspectives. That changed as the story progressed and I realized the story was bigger than Celia and Marco's fated rivalry; it was about the impact all the characters had on the circus and the competition, and how they were impacted by it all.
That said, once they were introduced, I was intrigued by several of the side characters:
Tsukiko, the mysterious contortionist who sees and knows more than she lets on
Poppet and Widget, the twins who perform with kittens and have unnatural abilities
Isobel, the fortune teller who reads cards (I totally geeked at the prevalence of tarot, and even more so when I realized she uses an OG Tarot of Marseilles deck)
Bailey, an ordinary boy unsatisfied with his life and who loves the circus more than anything else
Because Bailey is a complete outsider, the jump to his POV felt jarring at first, but I came to love his involvement in the story.
I absolutely ADORED the twins, especially Widget; from a young age, he had a firm grasp on the concept of consent, cares for his sister so sweetly, and has a knack for storytelling.
I felt sorry for Isobel and how she's treated by one character in particular, but was still mad at how she handles things in the end.
And though I also felt bad for Tuskiko and her tragic backstory, she was (and remains) harder to gauge.
That's all I'll say, as I don't want to ruin any part of these characters or their involvement with the story for you.
This book is so [insert preferred expletive here] magical! The imagery of the circus enchanted me from the get-go. I craved the magic of it, wished I could experience it myself. I could 100% see this as a Tim Burton film starring Eva Green as Celia.
But as there is no film, and I cannot attend this circus in real life, I suppose I'll live vicariously through the coziness of the self-insert descriptions sprinkled through the book, which play out as if the reader is strolling through the circus, admiring its attractions.
Even when I felt no connection to the characters and lost as to where the plot was going, the atmosphere kept me engaged. I think the magic of the circus pulled much of the novel's weight, at least until the last few chapters when things finally started coming together.
The Night Circus is an atmospheric story filled with creative magic and gorgeous visuals that will pull you in and delight your senses. I was disappointed in certain aspects, expecting a little more action and chemistry, but I still enjoyed this book and will try other works by Erin Morgenstern. Her writing is enchanting.
I also appreciated the messages on community and creativity—what it’s like to bring your ideas to life and deal with creative blocks, and how things like art, creativity, dreams, magic, and passion can bring people together from across the globe.
I think this is a nice cozy read for fall, especially carnival season, and would recommend it to anyone who likes character-driven novels and stories heavy on the magic vibes.
If you've read this story or plan to in the future, let us know how you feel about it in the comments below, or on one of our social media channels! You can find us haunting Twitter or floating around bookstagram.