Beauty in the Mystery: The Magic of The Night Circus

“This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world, and what's worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them. They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence.”

I did not realize just how lacking the word magic was until lately. Until I read The Night Circus.

For here is a novel that, while written in English, seems to point out the utter failure of the language to describe all that goes on within its pages. Visitors to the Le Cirque des Rêves -- as well as followers, performers, creators -- none can really seem to describe what the circus really is. One character is called a magician, though he does no magic in the showy sense, and all his work happens from a distance. Another titles himself the Enchanter. A third is the illusionist, though her performances are far from illusions. So many of the synonyms for magic -- conjuring, sorcery, divination, witchcraft, to name a few -- seem to point out the trickery, the falseness, the suspicion of magic. Even enchantment, the most positive synonym in the thesaurus, can carry negative connotations. Magic is often misunderstood -- it is scoffed at, hated, or feared, and sometimes all three at once.

Yet in the world of fantasy, it is not only understood, but systematic. Pick your novel or series, and if magic is prominently featured, it is sure to be the domain of the protagonist. The main character discovers their abilities, and must learn to use them -- usually with the help of a school, books, or a mentor. The audience reads what they read, hears what they hear, learns what they learn, and so begins to understand the system of magic that a particular author has designed for their world.

This is not true of The Night Circus. Which is not a circus in a traditional sense. There are no elephants, no clowns, no big top, no ringmasters. It is a circus open from dusk till dawn, with endless winding paths between dozens of small tents. There are contortionists, and fortune tellers, cat acts, and illusionists. But there are also gardens of ice that regrow in front of your eyes, mazes that defy the mind, carousels that defy gravity, and halls of mirrors that never end. Neither the visitors to the circus, nor the performers themselves can seem to describe what causes it, or how it is done. Even its creators puzzle over the words.

“What do you call it?”
“Manipulation. I called it magic when I was younger. It took me quite some time to break that habit, though my father never cared for the term. He’d call it enchanting, or forcibly manipulating the universe when he was not in the mood for brevity.”

Yet the circus was not created to delight. It was created to serve as a venue, an arena, for a competition more binding than most can imagine. Two old acquaintances, two old rivals, masters in the arts of manipulation, of illusion, yet who do not compete, themselves. They train two young prodigies to do it for them. Marco and Celia, together creating and holding the circus and its performers together through tremendous acts of will, taking part in a game that is rather deadly.

I won’t spoil any more of it for you. Suffice it to say that despite the hype (a debut novel hovering on the bestseller lists, and everyone raving about it) that tends to put me off, it is worth it. Worth the hype, and well worth the read. I read avidly and voraciously, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve read something so quickly. The story is captivating, the characters fantastic, but most of all, the language is gorgeous. Though every author aims to take their reader into their world, never have I felt more able to simply step through the pages of a book. Never have I felt more longing for a place to be real, than I did this circus. Magic is inadequate a word. But it is the best that the English language can do. So: this book was pure magic.