It has been difficult to avoid seeing glowing reviews of The Night Circus over the past year but it was never something that sat particularly high up on my TBR list. I tend to approach magical fiction with a touch of suspicion. While some of my favourite books contain more than a hint of the surreal or supernatural, books that overtly reference 'traditional' magic spells, hocus pocus and wizardry can leave me cold. There are always exceptions to every genre though, so when I had the good fortune to win a copy of The Night Circus over on Kim's Reading Matters blog I just couldn't resist the beautiful cover any longer and had to dive in.
Prospero the Enchanter is the best illusionist the world has ever seen - forget Paul Daniels or even David Blaine, this guy is the real deal. And for years he has been playing an ongoing game with his enigmatic friend and rival known only as Mr A.H. The two men get their kicks by each picking a young child to train up in the arts of magic and charms, and then pitting their protegés against each other in a sort of battle. So when Prospero wakes up one morning to find Celia, his long-lost daughter, abandoned on his doorstep, he can't resist challenging his opponent to one last showdown. And where better for the game to take place than in the most unique and mystical circus in history?
I absolutely loved this book and read it greedily in just over a day despite my aforementioned usual slight aversion to books with a heavily magical theme. Without wanting to make lazy comparisons, it really did evoke exactly the same feelings in me as reading Harry Potter as a young teenager (which is a definite compliment!). I wanted to run away and join the Night Circus just as I used to wish my school was as exciting as Hogwarts - the creativity and imagination behind each of the black-and-white circus tents is astonishing and it is all described so vividly down to the last detail. It also shares a certain darkness behind its enchanting facade, and shows magic to be both exciting and deadly scary. The Ice Garden, The Cloud Maze, The Labyrinth...each attraction is a real gem. I have never been to a real circus but if they really existed in this model I would be there like a shot, not a clown or caged animal in sight!
Morgenstern's vivid imagery is so good that the plot itself almost feels like a lesser issue, but it is really engrossing. The story is not told chronologically and the chapters jump around an awful lot from one year to the next. This really messed with my head initially, but after 100 pages or so I became accustomed to it. While I didn't feel especially strongly towards either Celia or her competitor, Marco, the wide cast of supporting characters are great. I found my heart melting a little bit for Bailey, a young visitor to the circus who falls in love with one of the performers he meets there. I was also a fan of Mr Barris, an engineer who inadvertently gets swept along with the circus and provides a really lovely dull-as-dishwater contrast to the flamboyant characters who surround him.
If you haven't picked this up already, I'd recommend it in a heartbeat, particularly if you are a grown-up who enjoyed the Harry Potter books and are looking for something else to excite your inner child at the same time as making you think!