Golden Tentacle Finalist: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Monday, January 23, 2012
One of the guiding principles behind The Kitschies is the idea of transparency – which is why we much a big deal out of these pre-decision reviews. And, in that spirit, I don’t think there’s a problem with confessing that I love The Night Circus.
Earlier, Anne referenced that one judge compulsively read The Enterprise of Death while vacuuming. Similarly, I read The Night Circus while walking to the corner pub - and then resented the fact that our friends were already there to meet us. Magical competitions, sparkling detail, gruelling training sequences, exquisite use of language, tragic romance and villainous bureaucracies… all some of my favourite things. All wrapped up in one volume, it makes The Night Circus one of my favourite books.
Which leads tidily into another of the prize’s guiding principles: the use of criteria. (If it helps, right now I’m imagining my high horse as looking like something straight off the Night Circus’ carousal). “Hug it to your chest and coo” isn’t actually what we’re looking for – we’re out for “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” instead.
This is all the more important when it comes to books like The Night Circus, works that are carefully crafted to trigger an emotional response. True, the book makes me all verklempt. That’s a sign of its success in some area. But is it an area we’re looking for?
[There are a few mild & woolly spoilers below the jump. If you're concerned, please pick this up at the final paragraph.]
Given The Night Circus’ obvious commitment to being a beautiful book, I’d like to take a contrary tack and discuss its intelligence. The Night Circus is transparent in its own way. The star-crossed romance of Celia and Marco is set up from the first pages and its course is made blindingly obvious within the first hundred pages. The ultimate resolution of the book is never in doubt. Nor are the plot’s carefully mandated twists and turns, the “will they, won’t they”s, in any way unexpected.
Where The Night Circus astounds is with the breadth and depth of its characters and the way the primary plot surrounds itself with a thousand tiny whirling eddies. Celia and Marco swan around like the world was created for them, but every action they take has an impact on the flock of companion characters caught in their wake. As a result, The Night Circus is less about our protagonists’ lock-step march towards Destiny and more about the suffering they cause with their self-absorption. Isobel, Chandresh, Thiessen, Bailey, the Burgess sisters – all actors in their own right – have their own ambitions and desires inadvertently subsumed by Celia and Marco’s less-than-intimate drama.
(Tangentially, this also approaches how The Night Circus is progressive. It is gloriously anti-Objectivist high fantasy, as it shows how the notion of the “Chosen One” isn’t just relative, but also destructive. End tangent.)
Celia and Marco, with no thought to the consequences, manipulate everyone around them with their magic. This is, of course, all the more ironic as they themselves are the victims of magical manipulation. They are controlled by the Contest, yet enslave everyone else to the cause of their love. Our noble heroes may earnestly believe they are the center of the One True Story, but other characters, such as Tsukiko and Prospero, help keep their antics in perspective.
It certainly isn’t that Celia and Marco aren’t worthy protagonists – and part of the book’s compulsive beauty certainly comes from the timeless, recognizable tale of their love. But no one is the sidekick in his or her own life. Just as Celia and Marco gradually recognize (and rebel against) external control of their destiny, the other characters become aware of their own quietly enforced subservience. The book carefully monitors their reactions as well. The book’s ultimate resolution comes equally from Celia and Marco’s decision to rebel and their thralls’ decision not to.
The author’s own choice, not to elide the sacrifices made by those around Celia and Marco, elevates the book beyond the normal tale of boy-meets-girl. Just as Romeo and Juliet may be the focal point of the story, the most tragic death is that of Mercutio. The Night Circus is intelligent because it balances the heroes' passion with their arrogance and overlays their journey with that of their companions.
That, and I want to hug it to my chest and coo.
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.
You can find the complete list of Golden Tentacle finalists on The Kitschies' site. Please join in the discussion below and on our Facebook page.