This book is what I wanted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to be. The first 40 pages didn't thrill me (I usually can't stand books written in the simThis book is what I wanted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to be. The first 40 pages didn't thrill me (I usually can't stand books written in the simple present tense), but once the circus opens its gates, the whole feel of the world changes. The middle section - really up until the last 50 pages or so - is ephemeral, vibrant, imaginative, and manages the balance between real and unreal with the same grace as, say, Charles de Lint, who could have written whole scenes here and I wouldn't have been shocked.
The strength of The Night Circus is (thank goodness!) the circus itself. Sections of the narrative are written as if the reader is exploring the circus as an ordinary visitor, but the sense of wonder really comes from the two main characters and how they interact with both the audience and the circus itself. I will say that you can approach the descriptions of the circus in two ways. You could read them as words on a page, appreciate them for their descriptiveness and imagery, maybe even enjoy them for the ambiance they add. You'd be bored in 100 pages, to be honest. Another tent? Another act? So what? There is another option, which I hope you'll take. Approach this book in the same way that the outsiders approach the circus, and you'll be enthralled right along with them. Read as if you were actually going to a circus: with the expectation that what you see is meant to amaze you. Go along for the ride, and the book turns from good to great.
The two main characters, without giving too much away, are two magicians (the term is debatable) who are set to compete against each other by two other magicians (again, debatable) who have a long-standing feud about...well, it matters, but not as much as what happens once the stage is already set, pun intended. The plot is complex and tightly woven, and the two champions' dance around and towards each other is slow and intricate. It's a treat to read a romance that has so much patience to get where it's going. Not that this is entirely a romance - in fact, the best bits have nothing at all to do with it - but it's refreshing to read about romance in the way that it sometimes happens: slowly, impatiently, and inexorably.
Celia and Marco, the two competitors, are wonderful to read about, yes, but my favorite character has to be Herr Thiessen, the master clockmaker and circus outsider who crafts a clockwork timepiece grand enough to display in the circus's main courtyard. I'll admit, I do have a thing for clocks and watchmakers etc., but Herr Thiessen is the best-written character in the story. He's the reader's way in: an outsider who was called on because of his skill to create something transcendent. He's a believable character - not quite ordinary, no, but if the world were only a tad bit different, and the stars aligned, then maybe, *maybe* it could produce someone like Herr Thiessen. The circus is too grand and too magical to be appearing in your city tomorrow, but Herr Thiessen could be living in Germany right now. I could believe that.
On the whole, this book is deliciously subtle. The individual threads of the plot sometimes seem to be written just for the wonderment of it all - and maybe sometimes they are - but so many of them turn out to be vitally important. Guns are shown in the first act, but maybe you won't recognize that they're guns. Maybe they're not really guns at all, and maybe you might forget all of them before the last act, when they all go off. Four stars for this book - mainly because I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending - and if I'm still thinking about it in 3 or 4 months, I'll revise it to a 5. Damn fine storytelling....more