“Can your illusions be viewed from all angles?”
Celia smiles. “You are looking for someone who can perform in the midst of a crowd?” she asks Chandresh. He nods. “I see,” Celia says. Then, so swiftly she appears not to move, she picks up her jacket from the stage and flings it out over the seats where, instead of tumbling down, it swoops up, folding into itself. In the blink of an eye folds of silk are glossy black feathers, large beating wings, and it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when it is fully raven and no longer cloth. The raven swoops over the red velvet seats and up into the balcony where it flies in curious circles.
“Impressive,” Mme. Padva says.
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Synopsis: Celia is the gifted daughter of a well-known magician. Marco is an orphan adopted by a rival magician for the purpose of being pitted against Celia in magical competition. The Circus becomes their forum, with each of them outdoing the other in feats. But the competition is more dangerous than either of them could have imagined, and every member of the circus is caught up in its precarious state of enchantment.
When people start dying, Marco and Celia must face the fact that the Circus is slipping beyond their control—as well as their final challenge: neither can bear living without the other, but only one may survive the game.
Notes: Quality worldbuilding comes at a lot of levels. Good and even great are relatively common in speculative fiction, but it’s something else again to find outstanding—a lavish, startling, sweep-you-up-in-magic depiction of scene and setting. Morgenstern writes with the mystique of the stage magician, revealing extraordinary things with precise timing, with swathes of glitz and color bursting out of darkness. The result is honestly one of the most vivid appeals to the imagination I’ve ever come across.
The author opens the circus directly to the reader through brief scenes in second-person point of view, demonstrating one of the rare ways that particular narrative mode can be made bearable. The rest of the book is in the unusual combination of third person and present tense, e.g. "...she picks up her jacket from the stage"; a setup that provides imminence alongside the necessary distance for mystery. Here and there, that combination became a touch confusing, as the mind naturally defaults to past tense whenever past events must be described. The non-chronological time progression occasionally made for similar difficulties. I found the present tense far less annoying when not paired with first person, however.
The text is pure elegance, with a classic, turn-of-the-last-century feel, a number of quotable lines, and a handful of references to Greek, Latin and French. The circus, for instance, bears the name Le Cirque des Rêves—the circus of dreams. The primary characters are often likewise very elegant in the old style: beautiful, poised Celia; handsome Marco, always hovering in the shadows; Tsukiko the contortionist, social genius Chandresh, reveur Herr Thiessen. Though the story does take place behind the scenes at a circus, it’s less a gritty tale of the carnival underworld and more the classy drama of old black-and-white films.
Old elegance can warrant its own set of advisories, however, which I might as well get out of the way. Tarot card reading underwrites parts of the plot, and there’s a general claim that anyone can learn spells and charms, which smacks a little more of charlatans and neopaganism and a little less of Harry Potter. Along with dashes of innuendo, there’s an unmarried sex scene designed to be romantically culminating; it’s brief and as tastefully described as such a thing can be, but it is what it is. Also, Celia’s father is physically abusive, which may prove a difficult experience for some readers. Finally, there are a (very) few uses of the sort of swear words that get a movie an R-rating.
The book eclipses its few weaknesses, however. Even the items mentioned in the above advisories are small parts of a tightly-written, nearly four-hundred-page story. The mood is exquisite; the characters are interesting and often lovable; the plot is carefully spun and engrossing.
The ending, however, is splendid. To say much at all would be to spoil it; I’ll limit myself to two brief notes. First, there's some interesting commentary on story itself. Second, in the final pages I thought of Tolkien and his description of eucatastrophe—the “sudden joyous turn”.
If that doesn’t tempt you to read the book, I don’t know what will.
Recommendation: Read it for the delight of being caught up into a dazzling, haunting, dreamlike world—the sort of place you won’t want to leave.