Iphigene here.

I often start my post with a story on how I came to read the book. Originally, I wanted to abandon this habit and go straight to “The Night Circus is essentially a love story,” but it felt wrong. Habits, as you must know, are hard to get rid of. Forgive me for succumbing to it.

I came to hear about The Night Circus through Myra. She had been seeing rave reviews of the said book all over the blogosphere. We were lucky to get a copy from Pansing (shout out to the lovely people there!). Myra had asked me to take the task of reading and reviewing the book. While not deliberate on my part, I have not read a single review about this book. What I know of it, Myra told me. I heard it compared to Jonathan Strange and to movies such as The Prestige and The Illusionist, while I might make mention of the films later on, this reviews would mostly focus on the book itself.

The Night Circus is essentially a love story, another retelling of the Romeo-Juliet plot—fated impossible love. While this may make me usually turn away from a book, Erin Morgenstern skillfully weaves a story that binds the reader to the circus and into the story, after all: The circus arrives without warning.

The Circus

I have never been to a circus, my images of a circus often involves clowns and lions leaping through hoops of fire. At its most sophisticated, I think of cirque de soleil. In the first few pages of the novel, I keep pulling from memory images of HBO’s Carnivale and Cirque de Soleil as anchors to my image of the circus. Midway through the book, I had to let those images go. The Night Circus is nothing like these images. I let Morgestern take me in, paint me her picture of the circus and believe she knew better than I did. The result: a reader enamored enough to believe herself a dreamer—a rêveur.

HBO’s Carnivale

“When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. It stretches across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke…leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads: Le Cirque des Rêves… “The Circus of Dreams…”

The circus is laid out in concentric circles, each tent properly labeled enticing you to enter. Everything is in black and white. At times a sudden show, tent-less might appear. Nothing is the same at every visit. Each tent holds something equally magnificent from fortunetellers, to acrobats, to feline trainers and to the intimate circle of the illusionist.

The story unravels in between, what I would call chapter interludes. In these interludes, the reader is given a vivid tour of a tent. While short, these little interludes are palpable to the senses and it helps you suspend your judgment and believe in the reality of the circus.

Wagers and School of Thoughts

The story begins with a wager between two men. The wager isn’t new.  It’s almost like a tradition. When one of them finds a student, they put their students in this challenge, both hoping to prove which school of thought is better. The challenge is unclear to both readers and their students. Prospero the Enchanter trains his daughter Celia while Alexander chooses an orphan boy called Marco. While bound together by rings burned in their fingers, Celia and Marco do not know each other, or the rules of the game. They are trained differently, Celia in a very spontaneous manner, while Marco was trained with books. It is this wager that brings the circus and our two lovers together. Our plot unravels on this stage—the circus and the wager.

Bound by Fate

The novel explores the idea of fate in layers. In the case of Marco and Celia fate is both a result of imposition and happenstance. They were bound by the ring marks in their fingers to battle until a victor surfaces, but like Yin and Yang, they intertwine – bound by the same fate that all star-crossed lovers are tied with. As perfect complements, they do not oppose each other, but dance.

What is fate without a fortuneteller (Isobel)? It is through her desire to let other possibilities surface and control what is fated that the story of Marco and Celia’s future reveals itself. It is through her that young Bailey Clarke’s future is exposed to the reader. Yet, the fortuneteller is but a fraction of the novel’s exploration of fate.

For fate is the thread that ties everyone to the circus, it is fate that keeps the circus running and keeps the reader at the edge of her seat. The Night Circus, while a love story, does not limit fate to that love story, but explores how a circus and the people within it are players in a bigger fate story.

The beauty however of Morgenstern’s concept of fate is that it is not force-fed. It is the greater possibility, but not the inevitable. Therefore, while we may believe that fate has us bound, it is actually our insistence on our freedom that can uncoil fate’s hold. For in the end, the Night Circus tells us that while Fate is a possibility, our future is our choice.

As Celia tells Bailey Clarke, even if the reader knows the fortuneteller’s reading of Bailey’s future:

“This is important. I want you to have something neither of us truly had. I want you to have a choice. You can agree to this or you can walk away. You are not obliged to help, and I don’t want you to feel that you are.”

Aesthetics and Names

The circus is in black and white. A neutral color, I can only guess to make the reader understand the opposing poles within it or that it is neutral ground in the battle between two schools of thoughts. Nevertheless, the detail given to the description of the circus, the tents as they are laid out across black and white stripes made me realize how the author focuses mostly on sight and sound to describe things. There is more emphasis on these senses, much like what an illusionist relies on. Therefore, like an illusion the readers are taken to believe the story, to trust and suspend any judgment.

There is barely any discussion on why the author insist on commenting about names and how some of them feel as if they are not owned by the people who carry them – like that of Alexander. It is however, mostly on Marco’s storyline that we find this reference to names. It is first mentioned when upon meeting Alexander he was never asked his name. Followed by that meeting with Isobel wherein saying his name doesn’t feel real. Finally, the last evidence of this is when he asks Celia to call him by his name. I can only suspect it is something about him being an Orphan. For after all what do orphans truly own except maybe their names.

The Storytelling

I have read a great many books. I have enjoyed the postmodern approach to literature or even the literary genre. However, sometimes it is the simple that is magical. I will not say that The Night Circus is this profound book. It is not. I felt it is a simple narrative that takes place in one of the most intriguing and magical places. If I were to tell you what I loved about this book, it would be the way the story is told. The way the stories are slowly unpacked to create a bigger picture. For The Night Circus isn’t solely about Celia and Marco, it is about the Circus, the people in it and those that are bound by fate into this unknown challenge.  Morgenstern allows us to speculate about the role of each character in her story. She allows us to guess and be engaged in the discovery of the challenge’s rules and the fate of our protagonists, but she only lets us in on the story at the right time. I think what made readers rave about this book has more to do with how the story is told than it is with the plot itself. While the plot is engaging and wonderful, the tension, the anticipation and the big sigh in the end can only be attributed to the storyteller. Therefore, Ms. Erin Morgestern, thank you for telling me a story, a real one that reminds me of the way stories were once told, minus that literary and the postmodern flares.

Daniela Denby-Ashe in North and South

The Night Circus is its own tale, while it has the feel of Jonathan Strange or the Prestige it is neither. I pray someone would make this into a film as I feel that in capable hands this would be a visual feast. However, I am satisfied to have read it and to have been given the opportunity to imagine the faces of the characters and for some reason I keep thinking of Celia to look like Daniela Denby-Ashe (the actor who played Margaret Hale in North and South) and Marco as Ben Barnes. That aside, The Night Circus is a book that has enough elements to make us all rêveurs (dreamers).

Ben Barnes

You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque de Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.

I apologize for the lengthy review.  There is more that I can touch on, but I must end. All this length is my attempt in making up for being absent from the site.

Reading Challenge Update 18 of 35

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11 comments on “Inside the Night Circus: A discussion

  1. Glad to have you back, Iphigene!! 🙂 As I’ve told you earlier, this review was worth the wait. I kept seeing The Night Circus at Barnes & Noble before the launch of our bimonthly theme. Almost bought it for review, too, but it was quite thick so that idea went bye-bye. Of course, it worked out pretty good since Pansing had given us a free copy, and you did a wonderful review! Made me want to read the book stat! Nicely done. 🙂


    • Thanks thanks. I’m like 1/4 back. I have a very very tight schedule at the moment, writing this review was very last minute. But I’m glad you enjoyed it. You should get a copy! hehe.


  2. Yes, I echo Fats’ sentiments, Iphigene. Very well thought out without really revealing anything much! I love it! I’m looking forward to reading the book before the year ends. 🙂


    • Thanks thanks. It was a great book to read. Haha, yeah, I tried as much as possible to stay away from revealing plot. 🙂


  3. Great review! I’ve read it, and I love your casting choices for Celia and Marco. 🙂


    • Hi Tabatha,
      Its great to hear from someone who HAS read the book and to hear that the review was done well. It was challenging to read, to say the least. Haha, I seriously kept seeing their faces when I was reading the book. I guess its influenced by their previous films, since Ben Barnes played Dorian gray. 🙂


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  7. I just awoke from “the dream” and loved the book. Yes fate and free will, intuition vs face value, the compelling sensory elements….all made me sad to finish such a beautiful story told with such elegance. The circus…life itself contains magic if one is open to it.


    • Hi Susan,

      Thanks for digging out this old review. It was definitely a wonderful experience. Majority of the time, I felt like I was going through the circus myself. It is a beautiful and elegant story. I am waiting for the author to come up with a follow up novel and hoping it to be as beautiful as this one. And indeed, life has magic.



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