The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Read by Jim Dale.
Really, this has been on the bestseller list for so long that there oughtn’t to be any need to review it. I put off reading it for a very long time because it was so big, though I remember noting the reviews when it first came out. On the other hand, I loved it so much that I bought it in print and am seriously considering buying it on audio as well.
The book is the story of two magicians, students of rival magicians. They have been raised from children to compete against each other in a formally pledged competition whose rules they are never told. Prospero the Magician, who disguises his real magic onstage as ordinary sleight of hand, trains his daughter Celia through such inhumane methods as slitting her fingertips open so that she will learn to heal them. Mr. Alexander, on the other hand, takes in an orphan boy and trains him in theoretical, book magic. It’s Prospero’s idea to make the contest a public one, and he and Mr. Alexander work subtly on one of London’s movers and shakers to create a marvelous circus to be the stage. What the two older magicians didn’t count on, however, was that for young magicians, friendship with another person like them might become more important than the rivalry they never asked for.
But, as the title suggests, this is also the story of the circus. The story of Celia and Marco (as the orphan boy decides to be called) is only one of the three stories that we learn. Their story is set clearly in the 19th century, but the book actually starts with you, the reader, getting an invitation to the circus, and your journey to and through the circus, presumably in the present day, as well as a lonely boy watching for the circus, somewhen between the present and the beginning of the circus.
And the circus! Here is a book with a built-in fan club! Because (aside from my tired parent brain’s shock at the idea of a circus that opens at dark and closes at dawn) the circus is a marvelous thing. It appears near a town – any town – without warning, all black and white, with wrought iron gates around it. The black-and-white striped tents, filled with wonders, line twisting paths that radiate from the central courtyard where a white bonfire is always burning. The scents of caramel and cinnamon fill the air. The people who work at and run the circus are just a vividly drawn – the mysterious contortionist, the fortune teller, the illusionist (who is Celia), the twins born on either side of midnight the very night the circus opened – to name just a few.
The stories unfold in layers, circling around each other. You the reader journey further into the circus as in the past; the circus is started and develops; the two magicians come into their own and try to puzzle out the mysteries of the contest; and the lonely boy grows up visiting the circus and finding it more home than where he stays in the intervening years. It all comes together in a beautiful whole. The narration by Jim Dale worked very well; he is forever the sound of Harry Potter for me, and this world, with its vividly described characters and scenes, felt a lot like Harry Potter, though it is more adult in the lack of a Voldemort-type character, and the magician’s quest is less world-altering than Harry’s, if no less absorbing. This is one for my favorites shelf.