By Erin Morgenstern
This book should have been everything to me – a spooky circus and a sorcerous battle set in the Victorian Era – but it was just so damn boring. It started strong with the hoary old magicians selecting unaware students to continue their contest of skills, and then building the titular circus to serve as the staging ground. Once the circus is up and running with the young magicians showing off their respective skills in increasingly elaborate exhibits, the novel really bogged down in endless descriptions of amazing and whimsical spectacle.
I really wanted to like this book because it has shown up on so many people’s best book guides, but the vast majority of the book is physical descriptions of settings both in the circus and out, and I find those extremely tiresome. Kinsey, who has read and enjoyed it, recommended approaching it like a poem, but I mostly don’t enjoy poetry either. There was just enough intrigue to keep me from giving up on the book entirely, though I kept interrupting it in order to read other books, and the action finally begins in the final 20% of the book.
I will say that the end is very good, but I just don’t think it was worth quite the level of build-up it got. While I sure would like to actually visit the night circus and see it all for myself, reading about it got old really fast.
I’m not quite ready to talk about The Magicians yet (although it’s still awesome), so it’s links again. This time I thought I’d share another review site I like: Asking the Wrong Questions by Abigail Nussbaum. She reviews books and movies and TV, focusing mostly but not exclusively on science fiction. Her reviews are tremendously detailed and thoughtful, and I appreciate that she’s in Israel and provides a non-American, non-European point of view that I don’t come across that often. I have to admit that I sometimes choose not to read her when she’s reviewing something I really love (Doctor Who, Persuasion, Community), because she doesn’t pull any punches. I’ve been known to describe her as “not liking anything,” but that’s not really fair. She just expects a lot of her media and isn’t willing to give anything, even a show or book she likes, a pass when its lazy. Which is great, but I’m not very good at disregarding something once I’ve read it, and sometimes I just want to watch a Doctor Who episode without worrying about the character inconsistencies. But I am always interested to see what she’s reading and watching and you can damn sure that if she gives something a good review, it is a really solid piece of media.
Today I specifically want to point to a review she did at Strange Horizons comparing Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I haven’t read Mechanique yet but I love Valentine’s blog. (Her movie reviews are priceless, as are her critiques of Miss Universe contestants’ costumes and her theory that Keanu Reeves is immortal.) I did recently finish The Night Circus and I thought about reviewing it here, but could never quite figure out what I wanted to say about it. I enjoyed reading it. It was very well constructed and featured some beautiful set pieces. But even after reading hundreds of pages, I didn’t have any stronger reaction to it than that. Abigail captured it perfectly in her review when she said that The Night Circus doesn’t inspire much emotion because the characters don’t feel like human beings. And it’s true, at no point did I feel overwhelmingly invested in the characters (with the exception of Bailey and I ended up being worried about how his story ended–join me in the comments if you’ve read this and want to talk about my concerns about Bailey!). At one point Abigail says the book has a sense of “weightlessness” and I think that’s perfect. The Night Circus has some really stunning imagery in it, so I’d recommend it to people who enjoy that sort of it-paints-a-picture writing, but based on the Strange Horizons review I’m thinking that I’ll move on to Mechanique.