Lucy's Reviews > The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
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May 11, 12

bookshelves: adult, fantasy, gloomy, how-did-this-get-published, oh-the-hype, so-very-awful, wasn-t-for-me, story-what-story
Read from September 24 to 28, 2011

Contains some minor spoilers.

I disliked this book, which means I ought to rate it one star, but it is not as awful as my one star shelf. One star books have to really repulse me to get that rating. The only redeeming thing about The Night Circus is that I didn't feel the one star compulsion to start a bonfire so I could properly dispose of it, hence two stars, but in this case it does not mean I enjoyed the book at all.

From the Goodreads summary: "But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands."

The above is a series of filthy, filthy lies intended to make you part with your money. Did the person who wrote the description read the same book I read? Or did he get so bored that he fell asleep and was forced to wing it for a deadline? If that's the case, I feel for the poor guy since I fell asleep reading this a few times, but I don't forgive the lies.

Lie Number One: "A Fierce Competition"
What Actually Happens: Instead of reading about a battle of wits, ingenuity, and talent taking place on a magical field you get two slugs racing against each other... over the course of sixteen or so years. Yeah, all those extra years might kill the intensity, but think of the emotional investment you make in those slugs. You can bring your new born baby to see them and go again every year as the fierce competition between the two of them goes on and on and on and on and on... (view spoiler) Your child will have a driver's license when the fierce competition is over.

Lie Number Two: "A Duel"
What Actually Happens: For a significant part of the story the two 'dueling' magicians are raised separately with no knowledge of one another. For ANOTHER significant part of the story only one magician is aware of who they are 'competing' against. By the time the magician who was unaware is finally brought up to date they have been collaborating on projects for years... Yes, you read that right. They never stand toe to toe in any sort of competitive sense. They build little attractions for the circus and sometimes they built them together, leaving gaps for the other to fill because they like each other's work. This is how they 'fiercely compete' during their 'duel.'

Lie Number Three: "Trained Since Childhood Expressly For This Purpose"
What Actually Happens: This sounds like a warrior toddler getting out of bed and doing push-ups (or the magical equivalent) every day for forever with the intent of search and destroy. In reality, they both have haphazard educations from sociopathic father figures* who never tell them a damn thing about the competition. They don't know what they're doing or how to play the game (and neither does the reader for most of the book). I believe this is because the author had no idea how to make them actually compete or what she was doing beyond establishing a lot of overly descriptive scene setting. The training is just education from two different schools of thought on the subject of magic. They're not given any idea of how to be the victor. It's an experiment, which is vastly different from training a warrior as this is made to sound.

*The father figures are equally psychotic, suggesting that both of their philosophies are fundamentally flawed because they're both batshit crazy. One slices his daughter's fingers open over and over again to teach her how to heal herself, even smashes her hand to break her bones for a lesson, and the other does not know his ward's name until he is nearly an adult. Neither of them ever face any consequences for the things they do to the children or the many experimental children before them.

Lie Number Four: "Only One Can Be Left Standing"
What Actually Happens: Aside from the obvious (view spoiler) ending the author works in, there's no reason that one of them has to die. The previous "battle" before this one (I'm sneering at that) lasted thirty-seven fucking years and only ended because one of the magicians committed suicide. There's absolutely no sense of urgency in this book. It moves at the languid pace my grandmother's overweight poodle used to meander around at, like there was no where to go and nothing to do. The author tries to force some urgency and pacing in by having both characters willing to lose the game so the other can win... but why? If you're playing a game of Monopoly with a friend (Monopoly might be too exciting a comparison to use here but lets work with it) and someone's going to need to commit suicide at the end of it then you... don't stop playing. You don't even have to sit at the board all day every day. You can come back once a year and make a fucking move. No one in their right mind would jump up and yell 'I shall die for you my dearest!' especially if you know your friend will jump up and say the same thing louder.

I don't know what happens if no one commits suicide? Does someone self-implode from excess magic? We never find out anything substantial. We don't know how past competitions ended beyond that single one. The book is left open-ended so that the publishers can milk this monstrosity all over again if it sells well.

Lie Number Five: "Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands."
What Actually Happens: After many, many years of not knowing who the other magician is, Marco reveals himself to Celia. The author tells you sparks fly. Sparks do not actually fly because these two 'characters' are about as flat as they come. There's no resisting falling in love. They just decide to do it in true Edward/Bella/Twilight fashion. There's no "deep, magical love". The love story is next to non-existent. On top of that, Marco continues to see someone else for years after... why? I don't fucking know. But it's a big god damn deal because she goes nuts and disrupts some of the magic of the circus and allows Bad Things to happen.

There's so many other things wrong with the book. There's intertwining timelines. We jump back and forth decades in time, vanish off into characters who are at first totally unrelated to the circus and then have minor roles later on. None of the core characters are well-developed and none of the relationships are even remotely worth reading about. I don't get why the book is set in the period it was set in. Social standards aren't kept up. Maybe it was more atmosphere? Maybe it was so that the author didn't have to deal with the people who would show up to debunk the magic of the circus.

On that note, the magic was so obviously magic that I got annoyed. I feel slightly insane for typing that out, but hear me out. It's all supposed to be real magic done with a wink and a nod so people won't realize it's real magic. Turn a jacket into a raven and then grin and wave so people believe you just performed the best slight of hand ever. Of course, the tricks were too fantastical to be believed. The wooden animals on the carousel breathe... and no amount of great mechanics could have made that happen 100 plus years ago. There's ice gardens and foggy mazes made of clouds, fires that never EVER go out, no one in the circus or relating to it ages (minus kids), and circus tents set up by invisible people. Everyone in the circus assumes the set up is done by assistants... what? assistants they never see? Where are the circus people when the set up and packing happens? Where do they think the crew goes after? Really, Book? Really?

All of this happened as a contest between two old men who do nothing but sacrifice the lives of children so they can have the satisfaction of being right about things that are never. fully. described. One prefers things more obvious and in your face, the other is quiet and prefers a more book based education. Seriously? This was the propelling point for the entire novel?!

The world building and magic rules also suck. Anything the author wants to have happen can happen with minor limits. The only reason to read this book is the lovely descriptions and abundant scene setting. I do not recommend it to people who like a good story, although if you're into abundant prose give it a whirl. It's kind of like reading a travel brochure while high as a kite.

Edit: To anyone who has not read the book and might be making their decision to read/not read based on this review, I wanted to say many people I respect found more redeeming qualities in the book than I did. Here is one such review. Based on my experience, I still recommend reading sample chapters online first or a library trip.
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Reading Progress

09/24/2011 page 37
10.0% "The descriptions kind of remind me of Neil Gaiman's books, particularly the ones written with a slant towards children like Coraline and The Graveyard book. Dark and sort of spooky. It's not quite as charming though, perhaps because it's not broken up with his dry wit."
09/24/2011 page 68
18.0% "I know it's still relatively early in the book, but the character development is lacking. I have no one to cheer for. I don't really care about either of the main characters or their plights."
09/24/2011 page 115
30.0% "Where are the characters in this book? There are so MANY missed opportunities for characters to merge from all the vivid descriptions. Marco spends his entire childhood locked away from people being trained by some batty old guy who shows him zero affection and the only effects this has had on his personality so far are a slight unease in crowds. Seriously? I don't even understand how we're this far in with nothing."
09/26/2011 page 181
47.0% "I will be shocked shitless if this book makes back its advance." 10 comments
09/27/2011 page 197
51.0% "All the talk of their favorite parts of the circus reads, to me, like the author whacking off to her own overly poetic descriptions."
09/27/2011 page 246
64.0% "If you know you're a descriptive writer then you should pay extra attention to the pacing of the book, not deliberately spread it out over decades and then intertwine the years. The Night Circus would have been slowed down by the description alone, but these other tactics (or lack thereof) are making it so much worse."
09/28/2011 page 335
87.0% "It's almost over. Thank you baby Jesus."
09/28/2011 page 352
91.0% ""I'd rather burn by her side than live without her." This is such a tremendous eye roll. They have the least passionate relationship I've ever read and I've read a lot of bad paranormal romance YA."

Comments (showing 1-50 of 334) (334 new)


message 1: by Brian (new)

Brian I was just about to pick this up, but I'm hesitant now. Is it worth it?


Lucy I don't recommend it. I think Joel's review (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) says it very well: "I don't think this book has a very good story. It is all setting, tone, establishing a mood. The story just kind of sits there, down at the bottom, under all that decoration."

It's a big hype book that you probably won't want to revisit after reading. I'd get it from the library or read some sample chapters online before purchasing it.


message 3: by Brian (last edited Sep 27, 2011 12:28PM) (new)

Brian I have to say, I'm disappointed. It looked like such a great idea, and I was really excited to read it. If it doesn't sell well I can't see the movie going ahead.


Lucy I think it'll do well for the first few weeks because of the marketing behind it, but I don't see it being word of mouth recommended much after.


message 5: by Brian (new)

Brian Thanks for the clarification. I think I'll be taking this one off my to-read list.


message 6: by Cory (last edited Sep 28, 2011 06:54AM) (new) - added it

Cory I don't think I'll be reading past the preview on this. I feel like someone put my head underwater and told me to breathe. It's. So. Boring.


message 7: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Hartman Suicide Monopoly was a great touch. Every time I play Monopoly I want to die, frankly, so I'm really feelin' the metaphor here.


message 8: by Isa (new) - rated it 1 star

Isa K. OMG this was the most epically entertaining review XD Made suffering through the book completely worth it


Lucy @ Brian, I'm glad I could help. I hope you find something better to read than this was for me.

@ Cory, I fell asleep reading this book at eight pm. Twice. I look forward to seeing what you think of the preview. Depending on how long it is you might not get tired of the descriptions. The setting and stuff is exceptionally well done but very over abundant. It takes awhile to make you twitch.


message 10: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy @ Rachel, thanks, and even the most boring game of Monopoly was probably more exciting than the magic duels going on here. I don't know how a writer manages to make something that should be so exciting so... not

@ Isa, aww thank you. I suffered to save others, although I have a feeling this will be a book a lot of people will try out either way just to see. It's not quite as often that an adult book gets the insta-movie deal that YA books have been getting so often lately.


message 11: by HєllyBєlly (new) - added it

HєllyBєlly There's absolutely no sense of urgency in this book. It moves at the languid pace my grandmother's overweight poodle used to meander...
Snort. I have just downloaded a sample of this one but I think I can confidently delete it from my reader without a second look. Great review!


message 12: by Lo (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lo I came to read your review after reading your comment in the question forum. Let me just say, I was laughing out loud at your review. So spot on! I'm looking at review after review of 5 stars and praises, I was so excited to read it and wondering why I wasn't reading the same story. I was severely disappointed to say the very least.


Bailey THANK YOU.


message 14: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy Lo! Me too. There was a girl who said she understood how some people "might not get it," but going over my head was not the problem. I got it; it just wasn't very good.

@ Bailey - You're welcome!


message 15: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy And this http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/0... explains so fucking much.

I understand some of the main plot elements, like the competition between Celia and Marco and their love affair, weren’t in your original draft.

Plot is not my forte. It’s like I have to live in my head in the book for a while before I figure out what the story is….My process is a bit messier.

So the author essentially had no idea what she was doing from the get go.


message 16: by Cory (last edited Sep 28, 2011 07:06PM) (new) - added it

Cory Lucy wrote: "And this http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/0... explains so fucking much.

I understand some of the main plot elements, like the compet..."


What's the book about outside of that?

And I tried, Lucy, I really did. BUT NOTHING WAS HAPPENING. The experience was traumatizing. 25pgs of borderline purple prose where nothing. at. all. happens.


message 17: by Steph (new) - added it

Steph Sinclair Hmmm...I was really looking forward to this book. Now I'm a bit more hesitant. Great review.


message 18: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy Just run for it, Cory. I suffered through this with the expectation that it would wow me at some point. That point never came.

@ Stephanie... Library it or you'll end up donating it. Although if you've got an ereader that's crap advice.


Jessica Jeffers This is a great review! I was very disappointed with this book - there was no sense of urgency or suspense at all. I really stopped caring about a third of the way in. Never a good sign.


message 20: by Steph (new) - added it

Steph Sinclair I've got it on my Kindle. One day I'll get to it when I'm finished with a few other books. There is a very long wait list for this book at my library.


Alicia (is beyond tired of your *ish) This review is utterly perfect. Everything you said is what I thought and raged about while reading. I want to link this in my 'review' so people understand that my enraged status updates weren't without basis (and for the fact you so articulately expressed my problems with the book, better than I am capable of right now). The only thing I would add is that because there was zero character development I didn't care about what happened to them. One dies, both die, no one dies, I didn't care! I just wanted to finish it. And how much of the book was dedicated to Bailey, this random nothing character and how much of his background we were given above all other characters, for what turns out to be no ("nothing special") reason!

That WSJ blog doesn't surprise me in the least. At a certain point it occurred to me that she simply had the idea of the circus and decided to cobble a plot together around it.


message 22: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy Thanks, Alicia. All the time spent on Bailey annoyed me, but not as much as the clock maker and the other people who followed the circus from place to place. Pages and pages dedicated to that and we never learn anything substantial about Marco or Celia. Their romance was so flat, at least to me. There's some reviewers I respect a great deal who think highly of the book, but for me it was a big fail. Oh and if you want to link I'm fine with that. I loved your status updates!


Alicia (is beyond tired of your *ish) Ugh, there was a lot about the followers. I guess I felt like at least Herr Thiessen was related to the circus? Bailey had nothing to do with it and we knew everything about this kid and nothing about the other characters. Marco and Celia's romance was definitely flat. They are almost never in the same place, they finally have one conversation of any depth, and BAM it's three years later, we're told that they've only had a few "stolen moments" together but they are soooo in love? What?! And you're right, that entire time he was still stringing Isobel along (and didn't you love finding out the depth of their initial relationship in the last 12% of the book?). And, thank you. =)


message 24: by Lucy (last edited Oct 03, 2011 12:15PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy I felt like things were only focused on Herr Thiessen (view spoiler)

Marco and Celia's romance was announced to us more than shown. I kept feeling like I'd somehow skipped pages where they actually fell in love. I went back and flipped through the book, but I couldn't find anything except the author telling us what she wanted us to know. Very annoying.

Do you have any idea why he was stringing Isobel along? It felt so random given that he was madly in love with Celia and rarely saw Isobel to begin with.


message 25: by Joel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joel i like your review better than my review! i should have gotten angrier. i think it is because i stopped and read another book halfway through.


message 26: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Hartman Joel wrote: "i like your review better than my review! i should have gotten angrier. i think it is because i stopped and read another book halfway through."

Wedding cake is a subspecies of anger, I always thought.


message 27: by Joel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joel i suppose. still, i could have at least put in some swears.


message 28: by Becky (new) - rated it 1 star

Becky LOL I saw this review from Joel's feed. I have seen a lot of people reading this recently, but I never had any desire because of my bias against circusy things. I blame animal cruelty and Sara Gruen for that.

But it's nice to know that I was justified in having no desire ever to read this. And your review made me laugh, so that's a plus. :D


message 29: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy Joel wrote: "i like your review better than my review! i should have gotten angrier. i think it is because i stopped and read another book halfway through."

I loved your review, Joel. I started following you because of it. It is true though that angry reviews seem to generate more interest than when the reviewer is feeling apathetic. I didn't know I was going to write a massive review when I started. I thought it might go "Nothing. Ever. Happens." the end.

And thanks, Becky. I think I'm not a circus person. I never felt overly compelled to read Gruen's novel. I thought I might someday, but The Night Circus has cured me of that tentative aspiration.


message 30: by Joel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joel don't bother. water for elephants is thoroughly meh. see the movie. it's faster and takes considerably less effort for equal return.


message 31: by Lucy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucy I have a rule about movies with Rob-what's-his-name. If I don't see him in a movie I can pretend he doesn't really have a career; it's delusional, but thus far a delusional success. I'll have to figure out how to cope with not knowing.


Jessica Jeffers I really liked Water for Elephants, and I'm not a circus person. Didn't see the movie, because I have the same thoughts as you on Rob Pattinson.


message 33: by Alicia (is beyond tired of your *ish) (last edited Oct 03, 2011 01:04PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Alicia (is beyond tired of your *ish) Lucy wrote: "I felt like things were only focused on Herr Thiessen the way you'd..."

I didn't even think of that with Herr Thiessen, but you're obviously right about her motives for his character.

Yes, being told that two people are in love has become one of my biggest pet peeves in books. Why in book god's name was their "romance" even billed in the synopsis if absolutely no effort was put into it? I don't get how anyone is satisfied by simply being told they're in love.

I haven't the slightest clue, really. I didn't get the scope of their relationship in the beginning (of course, that would require knowing something about the characters). (view spoiler) But I guess in this book the passage of time is irrelevant. Nothing really happens in the intervening months and years between happenings. Like they all go into suspended animation or something.


message 34: by Becky (new) - rated it 1 star

Becky Joel wrote: "don't bother. water for elephants is thoroughly meh. see the movie. it's faster and takes considerably less effort for equal return."

I agree with this, except I didn't like the book and therefore have no desire to watch the movie. Or RPattz.


message 35: by Joel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joel oh i didn't like the book either. i saw the movie under duress. it was more entertaining than the book but neither did much for me.


Alicia (is beyond tired of your *ish) I loved Water for Elephants. That book succeeds on nearly every point where this one failed. The movie was rather meh. And I actually like Rob and Reese.


Kristen I am having trouble finishing this... for all the reasons in your review. I will stick it out (because it's like watching a train wreck, can't help but want to see how it ends) but I have a feeling I will be quoting your review as the better piece of writing instead of quoting the book. And the WSJ article - where she admits to not being great on plot... yeah, as an author she should have kept that little nugget to herself!


message 38: by Joel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joel Kristen wrote: "And the WSJ article - where she admits to not being great on plot... yeah, as an author she should have kept that little nugget to herself!"

it's certainly no secret to anyone who has read the book... the surprising part is that none of the major reviewers seem to care.


message 39: by Kristen (last edited Oct 03, 2011 01:30PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kristen Joel wrote: "it's certainly no secret to anyone who has read the book... the surprising part is that none of the major reviewers seem to care. "

The more I read, the more I realize that the major reviewers are a bunch of idiots!


message 40: by Becky (new) - rated it 1 star

Becky Alicia wrote: "I loved Water for Elephants. That book succeeds on nearly every point where this one failed. The movie was rather meh. And I actually like Rob and Reese."

I disagree on this - I thought Water for Elephants was emotionally manipulative and overrated. But then I haven't read this book to compare. ;) LOL


message 41: by Joel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joel WfE at least succeeds in having a plot.


Alicia (is beyond tired of your *ish) Becky wrote: "Alicia wrote: "I loved Water for Elephants. That book succeeds on nearly every point where this one failed. The movie was rather meh. And I actually like Rob and Reese."

I disagree on this - I tho..."


Well, we'll definitely disagree on that point. This book is incredibly overrated. There are very few emotions though. So you wouldn't have to worry about that. (For instance, something that really bothered me, when Celia found out what her father actually bound her to at the age of six she was like, 'oh. See you later.' I was expecting outrage, cutting him off completely, something. Oh god, these characters were so flat!)


message 43: by Becky (new) - rated it 1 star

Becky LOL I'm sure The Night Circus is overrated - it sounds it.


Spellingwitch "The last "battle" (I'm sneering at that) lasted thirty-seven mother-fucking years and only ended because one of the magicians committed suicide.". LOL!! So true :)


message 45: by Sharakael (new)

Sharakael ROFL. Thanks for this review... I was going to preview this on Kindle but decided to just drop it altogether...


Ainsley Holy shit, this review is amazing. I felt the exact same way about this book, but I could never explain it as well.


Tracy even though i'm midway through, after reading your review, now I can see why i'm just so hesitant to finish. it just feels so draggy and i'm loathe for her to introduce another character. i'm already keeping mental notes. i was hoping that once our magicians met it would be sparks, but...wow...i don't even know anymore. and to think she got a HUGE advance, film deal and she writes daily on her blog other stories too.


message 48: by Vi (new) - added it

Vi Vi Fantastic review. What a waste of a good premise. ugh


Pallavi (There's absolutely no sense of urgency in this book. It moves at the languid pace my grandmother's overweight poodle used to meander...)
I burst out laughing so loud at work yesterday, people were looking at me (yes I was checking out goodreads at work)...haha
Excellent review..


I am Bastet I saved reading your review for after I finished the book. I agree wholeheartedly! The underlying concept for the novel just *didn't make sense*!!! The big "revelations" about the "game" that happen in the last 100 pages didn't feel important because I was expecting something so much more. I still can't work out the logistics of the "climax" because I don't think it needed to happen that way, and WHAT UP with the deus ex machina? It was like she realized she'd written 350 pages of novel and had to end it, so she ended it.

Instead of being satisfied, now I want to find a circus novel in which the two dueling magicians ACTUALLY shoot magic at each other until they tumble into love and really do almost destroy the circus with their hot hot sex.


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