A beautiful book cover can be quite seductive, much like the dreamlike spectacle of the circus. However, just as the circus is ultimately an illusion designed for frivolous entertainment, so is Erin Morgenstern’s glitzy but ultimately hollow attempt at a fantasy novel. While rich in visual imagery, The Night Circus is an insipid and tedious read that is all flash and no substance, and has more to offer in common gimmicks than in plot coherence and characterization.
Narrated in a nonlinear fashion, The Night Circus takes place in Victorian London, where a magical touring circus only comes into being when the sun goes down. At the center of this phenomenon are two apprentices — Celia, daughter of Prospero the Enchanter; and Marco, the adopted protégé of the mysterious Mr. A.H.—who have been trained extensively in magic and the art of show business in order to settle a rivalry between their mentors. Along with their intersecting storylines, we have a vast menagerie of performers and patrons, including the M. Chandresh Lefèvre, the ringleader; Tsukiko, the contortionist, Herr Frederick Thiessen, the German clockmaker; the teenage twin psychics, Poppet and Widget, and their friend, a curious young circus enthusiast named Bailey, who turns to the circus to escape his family problems.
Morgenstern clearly enjoys introducing new characters and incorporating new plot threads, which she does in excess. However, she fails to do them justice, as she lacks the ability the construct a coherent narrative. The world she conjures never achieves depth, being populated by one-dimensional characters and meandering subplots that don’t go anywhere. The vivid descriptions and striking visuals only serve to please readers on a superficial level; take that away and all that’s left is a flimsy skeleton of a half-realized, poorly conceived excuse for a novel.