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The Siren's Call: Step right up!

Duels and fantastical creatures await readers of 'The Night Circus' and 'The Circus of Dr. Lao.'

September 25, 2011|By Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times
  • "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern
"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern (Associated Press/ Doubleday )

The novel "The Night Circus" (Doubleday: 387 pp., $26.95) is receiving a good deal of attention, and it's rightly deserved — even though some comparisons of Erin Morgenstern's fable to other popular books seem sky-high and unfair (to her). Does anyone's book, for instance, really deserve the pressure of being called the next Harry Potter? Can anyone live up to that?

In the vaguest of terms, there's a similarity to Rowling's saga. Morgenstern's novel also centers on two dueling magicians, one of whom is difficult to pin down by name. The pawns in their odd, extended game are several sweet, young innocents who struggle to uncover their own destinies just like Harry and his friends. And the drama takes place among an interesting assortment of characters populating the Cirque des Rêves, which does seem, a little, like Hogwarts.

But let's stop there since Morgenstern takes those familiar elements and makes them wholly her own.

Prospero the Enchanter and the man known as A.H. (and occasionally as Alexander) are both old men, but their antagonism seems much older — timeless, even. Their battleground is a circus that opens only at dusk: It's a magical, monochrome affair, painted in chessboard black and white. The pair, however, don't challenge each other directly but via proxies. Each takes and trains an apprentice from childhood in the ways of magic.

Morgenstern keeps everything — the two men, the nature of their game — obscure, like a sleight-of-hand artist. But there's an ominous hint of what's to come for both apprentices — Prospero's is Celia, his own daughter; A.H.'s is a youth named Marco — in an early scene in which Prospero takes a knife and slits his little daughter's fingertips. She cries out, and he watches as "the skin melds together…closing solidly once more. Her father gives her only moments to rest before slicing each of her newly healed fingers again."

Why test her ability to reheal herself if it won't be important later?

The early part of the book follows the planning and creation of the Cirque des Rêves, revealing how each performer and each act is thoughtfully, carefully added to the ensemble. The circus travels far and wide without any effort (and, seemingly, without the need of a train) so that many are astounded, as is one devout, tragic attendee, who cannot believe "the field it sits in now, as though it has always been there, had been empty the day before…"

The two old men hover behind the scenes, while the circus' apparent proprietor is Chandresh Lefèvre, an accomplished showman and nearly transcendent knife-thrower. Marco becomes his assistant. Soon, into their midst arrives a young illusionist, Celia, whose incredible skills include turning inanimate things into flapping birds that fly around before resuming their original forms. Each young person has no idea about his/her opponent. Instead, they use their intuition to discover each other's identity as well as the true nature of the game. At one point Marco describes his understanding of it to Isobel, a beautiful fortuneteller who wishes the card for the lovers in her Marseilles tarot deck applied to them:

" 'It's a set of scales: one side is mine, the other is hers.'

"A set of scales appears on the table between the cards, balancing precariously, each side piled with diamonds that sparkle in the candlelight.

" 'So the object is to tip the scales in your favor?' Isobel asks.

"Marco nods…"

Thus that early glimpse of the circus black and whites and its suggestion of a chessboard motif are all wrong. The game turns upon a notion of balance and harmony, which both old men want to upset and which the young people (not just Celia and Marco, but several others as well), as they grow into adults, wish to maintain. At first, though, Marco and Celia each use the circus as a painter would a canvas to show off their magical cleverness and tip the proverbial balance in each's favor.

If this is all a bit obscure, it's supposed to be: "The Night Circus" is a very atmospheric tale in which things are seen in the half-light of another century's lamps. Morgenstern makes much of these shadows. She also clearly savors objects such as unusual clocks, vanishing rings, flaming cauldrons and strange carousels, and will make you savor them as well. (Want to take a ride on a griffin or a wyvern?) I imagine she'd ditch a GPS in her car and use an old, brass compass instead.

In this theatrical setting, her characters struggle against what's been predetermined to create their own lives and fates, or attempt to stop the game with a knife "spinning in perfect revolutions through the air" or choose whom they want to love (which complicates not just the game but the lives of everyone involved).

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