The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.
This isn't the easiest book to summarize, and I think the official blurb gives too much away, so let's just start with this:
"The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night."
I can tell you now this book was nothing at all like I expected. In fact, I think the best way to describe The Night Circus is "dream-like" - which is fitting, since Le Cirque des Rêves actually means "the circus of dreams." It's a pretty hefty read, clocking in at over 500 pages, and with a pace that encourages you to take your time and really absorb every detail. You won't be inhaling this one overnight - and even if you did, you'd be doing yourself a disservice.
In the very beginning I was strongly reminded of an old movie from my childhood. Remember this one?
Something Wicked This Way Comes also has a mysterious circus that blows in over night, but where Wicked is full of creeping horrors, I soon learned that The Night Circus is full of only beauty and mystery, with characters you soon learn to love - if only from a distance.
Part of that distance is maintained by the sheer number of characters and separate plot lines, although they're written so masterfully that there's no danger of getting them confused. It takes a little while for some of the stories to be tied in together, but eventually the whole tapestry of the circus takes shape in a swirling mist of magic, nostalgia, and childhood dreams.
That sense of distance is also due to the gentle nature of the storytelling. There are no monstrous villains to hate, no fights or chase scenes, and no real "action" to speak of. (The one small spot of violence near the end is actually quite jarring.) None of the characters are irritating or spiteful, and almost everyone gets along. The story also spans about 10 years, which adds to its leisurely pace.
So what DOES happen?
A dream. A competition. An audience that falls in love with the performers. But mostly? You fall in love with this circus.
The main character is a young woman magician, but like everyone else in the circus it's almost impossible to relate to or identify with her. The performers are just too... magical. Other-worldly. So instead, I lived vicariously through the outsiders; the visitors who are so enamored with the circus that they follow it around the world. (Groupies, if you will. :))
We get to follow two of these outsiders: one a young boy, and one an old man. I can almost guarantee that my fellow geeks out there will fall in love with them both. These are fanboys, through and through, and the way they band together with other outsiders in celebration of their shared passion will resonate strongly with modern fans today.
I wasn't too keen on the love story, just because I didn't like the guy very much, but that's a fairly minor quibble - and it ends so beautifully I can almost forgive the author for making him less-than-likeable.
As for other negatives, I'm sure some of you will consider the book just too slow. If you're looking for a gripping page-turner, this is definitely not for you! However, if you liked, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and you go in expecting less of a thrill-ride and more of a pleasant stroll, then I think you're going to love The Night Circus. In fact, I bet its beauty will soon have you dreaming of running away with the circus. ;)
Many of you told me these two from Dragon Con were inspired by The Night Circus, and now that I've read it, I can see you're right!