I’m going to tell you a secret.

Some of the best science fiction and fantasy books I’ve read lately didn’t have wicked cool Michael Whelan-style art of robots or dragons in haunting surreal landscapes on the cover, but slickly annoying “grown-up” covers.  You know, the ones with a single coy flower or crown to suggest the topic of the book and the title and author in BIG TEXT.

When people say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, they’re right in this case because some books, though marketed to within an inch of their shelf-lives as Mainstream Fiction are without a doubt Science Fiction and Fantasy.  To steadfast genre readers, who never venture outside the Sci-fi/Fantasy section, due to mainstream “serious” fiction’s obsession with modern middle-class people having dull, inconsequential epiphanies about their ordinary modern, middle-class lives, it’s time to reevaluate what you think of as Fiction for Grown-ups, and to those used to Dull Fiction for Grown-ups, it’s time to have your minds officially blown by books you find in the “Regular” section!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern has been on every best-seller list I can think of.  I knew the book was about stage magic, a topic I’m interested in, so I figured it was worth a look.  The story concerns a duel by proxy by two near-immortal magicians.  Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H. each have a different theory about the practice of magic.  Prospero believes in inborn magical talent, (his daughter Celia Bowen), while Mr. A.H. believes magic is found in books and can be taught to anyone, (such as an orphan he plucks from a random London orphanage named Marco).

Each magician trains his contestant intensively from childhood, leaving out all the tenderness and play most children are allowed, focusing solely on the mastery of the magical arts.

The contest officially begins when Celia and Marco are teenagers and continues for twelve years.   The Cirque des Reves is initially created by Mr. A.H. as a simple venue for the contest, nothing more, where Celia and Marco can try to outdo each other through magical displays of talent, but the circus quickly begins to take on a magical life of its own. As the contest continues, the people who work at the circus and the Revers who visit and begin to follow the circus from town to town are all slowly drawn under its enchanting spell.

As the contest continues, the contestants begin to realize, (a little late in my opinion) the nasty way one “wins” the contest.  It is really a test of endurance and survival, not spectacle and it can only end in one way. As Celia and Marco come to care for the members of the circus company and realize their responsibility for the predicament they’ve placed them in, they are faced with an untenable dilemma; how to stop the contest without destroying everyone.

Sometimes I want to go back and re-experience parts of books I’ve read or listened to, to recapture my delight at some witty bit of dialogue, or an interesting point the author had to make on human nature. When approaching a story, one of the things I always look for is the tale’s ability to transport me to a different, well-imagined world.  The world of the Cirque des Reves in the book is just such a place.  There aren’t many instances I can recall of wanting to go back and re-experience a part of a book because the descriptions of a setting were just so vivid, evocative and magical.  The Night Circus of the title is part of the characters and they are part of it in an entirely organic, symbiotic way.  Celia and Marco help create the circus but the challenges they undertake as part of the Contest influence the fabric of the circus, constantly changing the tents and what participants experience.  What starts as a contest between two magicians ends up involving thousands of people, as more people flock to the magical circus. Although ostensibly, the book takes place mostly in turn of the century New York and London, the circus has a sense of timelessness and placeless-ness to it.  It is a world in and of itself.  The different tents are so vividly described, I felt like I could reach out and touch the love letters on the wishing trees and scuff the sparkling white and black powder on the ground with the toes of my boots.  It’s the most amazing alchemy that Morgenstern can make you taste, touch, see and feel all the pleasures of the senses just by reading printed words on the page or hearing the story on audio.  This book is truly deserving of the appellation, “a feast for the senses.”  I felt like there had to be some sort of half scale diorama of the circus somewhere, all the tents felt so well-placed and accurately recalled from life in every last delicious detail. The author’s ability to imagine such beautiful creations as the magic-assisted clothing the two main characters wear when they meet for the first time after chapters of build-up and share a simple dance together is a rare gift.

At first I was a little jarred by the use of the second person pronoun in some of the narration and by the constant use of the present tense, rather than past tense for a story that is ostensibly taking place more than one hundred years ago, but I think Morgenstern does it to make the events of the story feel more immediate for the reader.

My main complaint about this book is the ending. Through the whole book I kept waiting for the two main characters to turn the tables on the magicians that deprived them of their childhoods and forced them into this deadly contest.  As the book goes on and we learn that this isn’t the first time the magicians have staged this type of contest and what the tragic results of previous contests were, I felt more than ever that the two immortal magicians were evil people and that something should be done so that such a contest never happened again.  I kept expecting Celia and Marco to join forces and use the magic their teachers had taught them to somehow entrap them and prevent them from harming anyone else with their foolish contests.  In the end though, the two main characters choose another route to finishing the contest, which I thought was a bit of a cop out.

All in all though, if you want to read a book that really feels magical, and not just another quasi-medieval retread, then The Night Circus is the book to get.

If you’re going to geek out, GEEK HARD!