I’ve been having a busy reading autumn, and for the first time in years, I’ve been reading a lot of very current fiction, often picking up titles shortly after their release. Perhaps it’s because of the monthly “fiction to watch for” posts that I’ve been writing here at The Reader: I’m piquing my own interest in my attempts to do the same for you. I thought it might be fun to go back and do longer reviews of some of the titles I highlighted in advance, now that I’ve read them and know a bit more. I’m starting with one that was featured in our September Books To Watch For post.
A first novel by a young author (Erin Morgenstern is 32), The Night Circus (M) was released to a great deal of buzz. The book has largely lived up to the hype, with strong reviews, bestseller list endurance, and—already—appearances on year end best of lists. A historical tale of magic and romance set against the backdrop of a mysterious and highly stylized traveling circus, The Night Circus revolves around Celia and Marco, young magicians who have spent their lives training for an unexplained competition. As the story unfolds, their skills in magic grow, the workings of the circus become more complex, and a romance blossoms.
I’ve seen more than one person suggest that The Night Circus partially owes its success to the fact that it appeals to readers who fell in love with the magic of the Harry Potter novels and crave a return to an imaginative world. I think that is a fair assertion (both for childhood Harry Potter readers now grown up, or those of us who were grown up when we read those books in the first place). Like those novels, The Night Circus has an incredible sense of place and imaginatively incorporates magic into everyday life. On her website, Morgenstern cites J.K. Rowling and Stephen King as authors she read in her early twenties, and says: “This likely speaks volumes about my literary development.”
For me, I was initially attracted to The Night Circus by its stylized black, white and red cover and by the teasing, mysterious blurb offered by the publisher:
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.”
It sets a tone without giving away too much plot, creates an experience rather than outlining a story: perfect for a book where atmosphere and tone may be the key appeal. Don’t get me wrong, The Night Circus has a clear, well developed plot, and a fascinating story, but that’s not what you’ll return to when you try to tell your friends about this book. I’d hazard that it’s the ambiance, the rich setting and vividly descriptive writing (where the sights, sounds and smells of the circus are all tangible) that you’ll remember.
With the success The Night Circus has been experiencing, it may be a bit before you get your hands on a library copy. Or, if you’ve already read it, you may be looking for more.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (M) by Susanna Clarke is a novel I’ve seen mentioned a few times in relation to the Night Circus. Clarke’s novel also has a historical setting (England during the era of the Napoleonic Wars) where magic is real. Not a perfect match for the The Night Circus, it lacks the romance for one thing, but if the rich detail, strong setting and magic are what tickles your fancy, it could make a good companion read.
On the other hand, if you want the atmosphere and the passion, but don’t need the magic, you might enjoy The Crimson Petal and the White (M) by Michel Faber. The plot follows the life of a young Victorian prostitute, who becomes entangled with the wealthy owner of a perfume company. This book is steamier than The Night Circus, but in terms of its lush prose, and detailed historical setting, I think it’s a good match.
Novelist has also suggested Under the Poppy (M) by Kathe Koja for fans of the Night Circus. It’s not a book I’ve encountered yet, but it’s also described as having lush writing, an atmospheric tone and a historical setting. From the book jacket: “From a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels, “Under the Poppy” is a breakout novel of childhood friends, a love triangle, puppet masters, and reluctant spies. ” One major note of difference I see is the pacing, Under the Poppy seems to have more fast action than any of the others mentioned here, but Library Journal’s description of the book as “an atmospheric tale for those who like their historical fiction on the dark and lurid side” certainly makes me see the parallels.