Tag Archives: magical realism

“And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.” The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

2011; Harvill Secker.

387 pages.


Note: A few minor spoilers below.

I chose The Night Circus  as my Magical Realism book for the Literary Exploration challenge. Magical realism is traditionally the genre which I enjoy the most. By nature it’s difficult to define, but essentially the ‘magical realism’ tag can be applied to stories which are generally realistic, but which contain fantastical elements. The archetypal One Hundred Years of Solitude blends magic and reality perfectly. Or, for a more recent example, look to Life of Pi, which contains scenarios unlikely enough to count as magic, though from a distance the world appears to be the same as ours. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t count The Night Circus as part of this genre, though such categorisations are nebulous at best. Better to take the book on its own merits.

The story of The Night Circus jumps around in the decade surrounding 1896, and I enjoyed the novel’s use of nonlinear time. The titular Circus appears without warning, is open only at night, and disappears just as suddenly. It’s a magical, monochrome realm, where everything is always perfect – quite the opposite of a real circus. In the Night Circus, there are wondrous, impossible displays, true magicians, and all manner of subtle sorcery which ensure a wonderful evening. I found this infinitely preferable to my experience of real circuses, which involve a lot of noise, impolite crowds, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the smell of shit. This magical, dreamlike circus immediately drew me in. “This is the precise flavor the circus should be. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.”

As always, all is not as it seems, and the Night Circus is actually just an arena for a contest. Two magicians, Marco and Celia, are bound to each other by their masters, and pushed into a competition. I was really excited by this – a magical duel, stretched over years, sounded awesome. Each master delights in being vague, and the rules of the contest even more so. In fact, for two thirds of the novel, one of the contestants is not even aware who they are up against. Sadly, a game which nobody is sure how to play – not the contestants themselves, and certainly not the reader – is not a good recipe for conflict.

So let’s talk about conflict.

The two main characters, Celia and Marco, are magicians, able to influence reality in a number of impossible ways. They’re pitted against one another from a young age, and quickly dedicate their lives to the contest. However, the stakes are never clear, and each magician spends a lot of time trying to find out for themselves. It’s nearly impossible to engage with the contest or the players within it, because there’s no clear goal or rules. Naturally, the two young magicians fall in love. Even this felt arbitrary and unconvincing, despite the surface beauty and wonder of their blossoming relationship (such as it is). The love subplot is also intended to increase the conflict between the magicians and their masters. However, with the stakes so low, there was never the sense of rebellious desperation you might expect. Each sinister master remains quietly benevolent, in action if not speech.

The closest thing The Night Circus has to an antagonist is Marco’s trainer and father figure, the shadowy Alexander. His motivations are generally unclear, beyond his desire for Marco to win the contest (although, again, this desire doesn’t stretch to actually telling Marco what constitutes winning). He’s sinister, apparently omniscient, and appears to contribute to the death of a character – but it’s a minor, undeveloped character, so even this fails to increase the tension or sense of urgency.

There’s also a number of subplots involving other people connected with the circus, especially Bailey, who is torn between his family’s pressure to stay home, and his own desire to leave and be part of the circus. The story visits him at various stages of his child- and young adulthood, where he becomes enamoured with one of the circus performers and is eventually called upon to save the Circus. However, even this subplot lacks much tension, because in the Circus, everything is perfect.

Bear with me here. The biggest draw of the circus setting is its difference to a real circus – that is, it’s clean, beautiful, and fun. Visitors experience events and displays which could only occur in dreams. Despite the wonder this implies, this is where The Night Circus falls down. In the real world, nothing is utterly flawless. The Circus is – and so becomes unreal. Things are unusual, certainly, and of course the reality-warping conjuration is obviously not just sleight of hand. I couldn’t help feeling that if only the Circus had gone further one way or the other – been more real, or more fantastical – it could have worked. It’s beautiful, yes, but when every setting and feature is perfect, it becomes oddly drab. Everything feels constructed, the conclusions foregone. With no character conflict to speak of, and a one-dimensional setting, the story quickly dropped into tedium.

I did my best to focus on the wonder. I tried to open my mind to awe and surprise. I wanted something magical, but still real; fantastic, but subtle. The Night Circus had some wonderful imagery, likable characters, and an interesting structure – but in the end, it felt shallow and cold.



Filed under review, words

2013 Literary Exploration challenge, part four

Whew! It’s time for part four of my Literary Exploration challenge reading list for 2013. Nine (that’s nine!) genres today means nine new books. Some of my favourites in here, so let’s get rolling!

19. Literary Fiction

Richard Ford. Canada.

The best way to introduce this novel is with the opening lines: “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.” I read quite a lot of literary fiction (though I’m still quite hard pressed to define it), but nothing of Richard Ford’s yet. He’s considered a master author, and I’m very excited about Canada.



20. Magical Realism

Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus.

Magical Realism archetype One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favourite novels of all time, not least because of its style. While stumbling around trying to find something with the same magic as Solitude, I came across this review, and my mind was made up. Another one I’m very much looking forward to.


21. Mystery

Dennis Lehane. A Drink Before the War.

This was an easy choice, actually. My mother is a big mystery/thriller fan, and gave me Lehane’s Sacred to read early last year. I really enjoyed it, but there was a lot of backstory for detectives Kenzie and Gennaro which I didn’t have. A Drink Before the War is the first Kenzie and Gennaro novel, so it made sense to start there.



22. Noir

James M Cain. Double Indemnity.

Boy, this list has a few huge/vague genres (that’s you, fantasy) and a bunch of overlapping small ones. To me, noir, hard-boiled, and mystery share a lot of titles. For my noir outing, I chose the best (or, at least, most famous) pulp noir I could find. That fantastic cover simply sealed the deal.



23. Non-Fiction

Stephen D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner. Freakonomics.

What did I just say about gigantic genre categories? Counting non-fiction as a genre indicates that ‘fiction’ should be one too, which the 35 other entries on this list suggest is a bit general. Anyway. I’ve been meaning to read Freakonomics for some time, and so… now I will. Honestly, though, this is the genre I’m most open to suggestions on – I don’t read much non-fiction. Drop me a comment!


24. Paranormal

Cassandra Clare. City of Bones.

About 90% of books filed under ‘paranormal’ on Goodreads have a suitably intriguing/mystic/magical looking late-teen girl on the cover, which is a great way to make sure I never pick up a  book. But we’re here to explore! I chose the one with the coolest-sounding series name (“The Mortal Instruments”) and some kind of buff tattooed guy on the cover. Can’t lose!


25. Philosophical

James Gleick. The Information.

As mentioned above, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. None, really. So, I don’t have a lot to base my decisions on, here in Nonfic Land. This book, though – about why information is so important to civilisation, and how it came to be so – sounds interesting. And, I like the cover.



26. Poetry

Stacie Cassarino. Zero  at the Bone.

One of my goals for 2013 is to learn to appreciate poetry. But I know nothing – nothing – about it. I’m basically afraid of it. Zero at the Bone comes on the recommendation of a few friends who are much more poetic than me. So… I’ll keep you posted!



27. Post-Apocalyptic

Hugh Howey. Wool #1-5.

Well. You can have a dystopia without an apocalypse, but you can’t have an apocalypse without a dystopia! I’ve read so, so many of the “best” books from both of these genres that it’s hard to find something I know about but haven’t already read. This basically limits me to something old or something brand new. I’ve got a lot of classics and older books on the list, so it’s time for a new release. This is another genre which is heavy on the mystic-girl cover, which I managed to avoid by choosing Wool (the first five stories, collected).




Whew! Big list today. Come back tomorrow for the last lot – there’s some big names, with things like Thriller, Romance, and Science Fiction.

For the rest of the list, here’s part one, part two, and part three.

As always, if you have any suggestions, drop a comment. Have I missed something? Am I really handsome? Let me know!


Filed under words