Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

It is no secret that The Night Circus was a NaNoWriMo novel that was whipped into shape so it could be published. If you ask me, it wasn’t whipped nearly enough because as pretty as the images painted by Morgenstern’s prose may be, there is very little that makes the novel readable or worthwhile…

night circusTHE NIGHT CIRCUS
by Erin Morgenstern

Published by: Vintage, 2012 (2011)
Paperback:  512 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: The circus arrives without warning.

In this mesmerizing debut, a competition between two magicians becomes a star-crossed love story.
The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway–a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in “a game,” in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

divider1I have asked myself many times, while reading this book, why I was still bothering. What plot was I following, which character did I care about? The answer to both questions is: none. The night circus is as vivid and stunning as its various book covers. But that’s the only thing that makes this book even remotely readable.

Morgenstern chose style over substance in every single chapter. Her descriptions of each of the circus tents, of the wonders created by the “rival magicians” Celia and Marco are imaginative and pretty much make you want to go there. But despite all its black and white glamour, the wonders untold, the stunning feats of its acrobats, the circus is a setting, nothing more. If you don’t fill it with interesting people, why should I keep reading?

I won’t list the many little ideas that the author has put into her magical circus. Be assured that they are beautiful and evocative, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to. I felt a sense of longing, of wanting to go to the circus and try a caramelised apple, see the Murray twins’ performance with their kittens, get lost in the labyrinth. So there is a lot to discover in The Night Circus, but unfortunately it is all description.

Take the characters that exist in this story. Celia and Marco, two magicians pitted against each other, fall in love. That’s the premise and it sounds great with its Romeo and Juliet vibe. Both of them, however, remain such pale cardboard creatures that I couldn’t have cared less if they fall in love or into a river and drown. I am serious. They remain distant and unknowable, and maybe that’s on purpose, but to keep the protagonists of your story this far away from your readers is a mistake, in my opinion. Aren’t I supposed to feel with them? To be desperately in love and want to be together, not fight a magic war that started generations before they were born? The way it is, we see little enough of them and when we do, all we get is a short glimpse that doesn’t tell us much about their personality. They are only what they need to be for Erin Morgenstern’s dream circus to exist. They make the circus, keep it going, adding more and more extravagant tents. Oh yes, and then they fall in love (or so we’re told) and that’s that.

The only character I connected with in any sort of way was Bailey, a young boy who falls in love with the circus as a kid and waits for it to come back for years and years. He has a back story, he has a family. It isn’t a vast backstory and, apart from his passion for Le Cirque des Rêves, there isn’t all that much to him, but at least we get SOMETHING. Tsukiko, the contortionist, is supposed to be important at the end, but apparently wasn’t worth the time putting a few words down on paper before that. She has no personality whatsoever and don’t tell me that the few paragraphs we get at the end make up for anything. I am especially angry because she could have been awesome. Poppet and Widget feel a little more real in that they do childish things when they are children. But I’m referring to one single, lonely chapter among many that are filled with descriptions over descriptions of – you guessed it – the circus and its many marvels.

nigth circus detail

Another unnecessary and utterly confusing device was the jumping in time. No matter how much I think about it, I can’t see a good reason for jumping back and forth – sometimes a year, sometimes a few days – between chapters. Keeping dates in your head is annoying enough when you have to for school but remembering a date from five chapters ago where this or that happened and connecting it with what you’re reading now, but which is happening five months prior, is just confusing. Look, I am not stupid, and I enjoy a challenge – non-linear novels can be brilliant, if done well. But giving away which characters die only to then jump back in time and describe things that have nothing to do with their death whatsoever, just makes no sense. “Oh, by the way, that person dies – now let’s go back a few years to a shiny tent where you climb around clouds. That character who dies, you ask? They don’t feature in this chapter. Or the next. Or the one after that.” The time jumps were useless at best, and off-putting at worst. This convoluted type of non-linear storytelling failed at whatever it was trying to do. It didn’t create suspense, it didn’t foreshadow – it just annoyed. The alternating characters were a more logical device and made more sense, as we see the circus through different eyes.

At about 80% through the novel, finally something of interest happens. The circus itself is in danger! Conflict! Problems! That’s what stories are all about, doesn’t everybody know that? These problems were resolved pretty quickly and sloppily but at least the characters had to do something. It made absolutely no sense, the ending is a loose affair but I had to mention this single occasion of actual plot just because it came so out of the blue and was in such stark contrast to the rest of this novel. At this point, I had long stopped trying to make any of the puzzle pieces fit together. Clearly, the author didn’t care, so why should I hurt my brain by trying to infuse sense into a “novel” that didn’t make any?

Erin Morgenstern has great ideas, even if you don’t count her visual design of the circus. Celia’s relationship with her father could have been intriguing. But, again, it was left on the sidelines and had no impact on anything, really. The two rivals who started the game – namely, Celia’s father and his opponent, merely exist in that particular role. They are gentlemen rivals and they each picked a champion to compete. We don’t know why, we don’t know what happens when either one wins, it’s like a Hollywood reason for having shiny things. Never mind reason or background, if we want sparkly magic and rooms made of ice, we will damn well have them. Oh and then let’s throw some pretty people in, they don’t have to talk. Just look hot and kiss occasionally.

There is so little plot or substance to this novel that I am astounded at how well it did when it came out. Granted, it would make an excellent Tim Burton movie but even then the script writers would have to come up with a plot (ANY plot). If they ever do make a movie of this, I’ll definitely go and see it, simply because the circus must be an impressive thing to look at. But I can promise you that, in a week, I will have forgotten every single character’s name as well as their roles. They are so unimportant to this ode-to-a-place that, at best, I’ll remember their clothes. As to who they are as people… I have no idea, and I suspect neither does the author.

RATING: 4/10  –  Not so good.

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Genevieve Valentine – Mechanique

Expectations can go either way. Sometimes a book cover or a blurb influences you so much that you believe you know exactly what to expect from a story. With this novel, it was mostly the current steampunk and dystopia hype that led me to expect a Hunger Games/Parasol Protectorate knock-off. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m glad my prejudices didn’t keep me from discovering one of the best books I have ever read.

MECHANIQUE

by Genevieve Valentine

published: 2011
ISBN: 1607012537
pages: 284
copy: ebook and paperback

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape. But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti’s performers are trapped in a secret stand-off that threatens to tear the Circus apart, just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now they must fight a war on two fronts: on from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within…

There are books that only take a page to make you envious of the author’s talent. Genevieve Valentine has all my envy and jealousy and respect for doing with words what she did in this debut novel. Every word is perfect, every sentence full of meaning and every chapter like a story of its own. Books like this remind me again why I read genre fiction. Because Valentine could be named among any of the contemorary greats of literature – if I had any say in it, I’d throw pretty much every literary award her way I can think of.

This is the story of a circus, told for the most part out of Little George’s point of view. He is a little boy who doesn’t miss much, and narrates the story superbly. His sparse, but poignant words put life into the characters and their sometimes unfathomable relationships to each other. We are told slowly, and chapter by chapter, who came to the circus, why they joined and – perhaps most interestingly at first – what really happened to Alec. The Winged Man has been dead since before the story starts but his death (and life, for that matter) remains a mystery.

It takes Genevieve Valentine maybe two sentences to create a character that feels like a living, breathing creature. After soaking up every word of this story, I don’t feel I truly know any of them, not at their core. I love how we don’t get smacked over the head with information, with character traits or what drives them. Valentine shows, she doesn’t tell. And sometimes she doesn’t show very much either. I love an author who trusts their readers to use their own heads to figure out what’s really going on. Having an unreliable narrator makes it even more interesting to define just what shade of grey each of the characters are.

There is a heavy steampunk element to this story, though not at all like I expected. It is not about zeppelins and goggles, the brass and copper used in this tale is well incorporated into the world and the subtle magic system. For the most part, it is a novel about people, though. About their dreams and what they’re willing to do to get to them, about their fears and about love, and how far it can push them. As emotionally layered as the circus troupe is, I wouldn’t even have needed a plot. Just discovering these brilliant people would have been enough.

But the author, mostly known for short fiction before this novel, has a plot in store for us. It may be slow to begin but turns into a suspenseful adventure with the most perfect ending I could have imagined. Except of course for the one flaw: the fact that it does end.

Stylistically, this may be a difficult read for some. Valentine jumps randomly between a third-person narrative and first-person narrative (from different characters’ points of view) to an occasional second-person narrative. As if that weren’t confusing enough at times, we switch tenses from past to present. It is further proof of her writing skill that I always knew in whose head I was and when – chronologically speaking – this particular chapter was taking place. Because being told in present tense does not automatically mean that the chapter isn’t a flashback to a few years prior to the main plot. If that makes sense to you. It is a challenge but one I was happy to take and that turned out to make a delightful change from your boring old straightly told story.

There were so many parts of this book that I found so quotable, I’d love to fill a whole notebook with it. Here’s an example of Valentine’s voice. Jonah has accidentally adopted a wolf. It’s been running around the circus but slowly turns wilder and wilder. And it’s time to take down the tents and move on.

One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”

I have no words to describe what an experience this book was. After I finished, a sadness swept over me and made me want to return (immediately) to that strange, sinister world of the Circus Tresaulti. I caught myself re-reading my favourite passages, soaking up the words. I sincerely hope Valentine will win the Nebula Award for this novel. It’s definitely one of my highlights this year, if not ever.

THE GOOD: Poetic language, playing with styles, deeply touching characters, suspenseful plot, original use of steampunk.
THE BAD: If anything, it was too short.
THE VERDICT: A challenging, unique read that has haunted me all year and is recommended to anyone who reads speculative fiction.

RATING:  9,5/10  –  Damn near perfection!

Read the first five chapters for free as well as three short stories in the world of Circus Tresaulti (also highly recommended, especially the one about Panadrome, “Study, for Solo Piano“).

Other reviews:

Genevieve Valentine – Mechanique

Mit Erwartungen ist das so eine Sache. Oft wird man durch die Covergestaltung oder den Klappentext eines Buches so stark beeinflusst, dass man sich sicher wähnt, welche Geschichte einen erwartet. Medienpräsenz, Auszeichnungen und Buchkritiken können da ebenfalls ihren Teil beitragen.
Bei mir war es eine Mischung aus alledem, gepaart mit dem momentanen Hype um Steampunk-Bücher und jugendliche Helden in dystopischen Welten. Und was bin ich froh, dass meine Erwartungen hier nicht nur über den Haufen geworfen, sondern um ein Tausendfaches übertroffen wurden.

Deutscher Titel: noch nicht bekannt
Erschienen: 2011
Seiten: 284
Erschienen bei: Prime Books

Meine Bewertung: 9,5/10

Erster Satz: The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

Es gibt Bücher, bei denen man neidisch wird, dass man nicht selbst so wundervoll schreiben kann wie die Autorin. In Mechanique ist jedes Wort perfekt, jeder Satz durchdacht und jedes Kapitel wie ein Gedicht. Bücher wie dieses rufen mir wieder in Erinnerung, warum ich Genre-Literatur lese. Denn Genevieve Valentine steht in sprachlichem Können den großen Schriftstellern unserer Zeit in nichts nach. Hätte ich etwas zu sagen, würde ich ihr jeden nur erdenklichen Preis für dieses Meisterwerk hinterherwerfen.

Little George ist Teil des Zirkus Tresaulti, der vor jeder noch stehenden Stadt sein Zelt aufschlägt und mit künstlerischen Akten fasziniert. Ayar, der Starke Mann mit der Wirbelsäule aus Stahl, die fliegenden Mädchen auf ihren Trapezen, die Jongleure und die akrobatischen Grimaldi-Brüder, Jonah, der Junge mit der Uhrwerk-Lunge…

Genevieve Valentine schafft es, Charaktere innerhalb von zwei Sätzen zum Leben zu erwecken, ihnen eine Vergangenheit und eine Zukunft zu geben und das scheinbar mühelos. Dieses Buch mischt Genres wie kein anderes. Teil Steampunk-Buch, Teil Charakterstudie, mit einer sehr versteckten Liebesgeschichte in einer dystopischen Welt. Mit Bravour jongliert sie diesen Mix und trifft stets den richtigen Ton.

Die Autorin springt nicht nur wild in der Zeit herum, sie wechselt auch immer wieder die Erzählperspektive. Während der Großteil des Romans von Little George in der Ich-Perspektive erzählt wird, springt die Erzählung in manchen Kapiteln in die dritte Person und zeitweise sogar in die zweite Person. Diese Du-Sicht gefällt mir normalerweise gar nicht, aber hier weiß man immer ganz genau, wer dieses “du” ist und diese Persepktive wurde so gut gewählt, dass es mir erst nach mehreren Kapiteln aufgefallen ist.. Und auch diese Mischung funktioniert ausgezeichnet. Da Genevieve Valentine den Leser direkt anspricht, fühlt man sich dicht im Geschehen und erlebt wirklich mit, was in der Manege vor sich geht. Man sieht das Geschehen durch die Augen verschiedenster Charaktere und weiß nur sehr selten mehr als die Zirkustruppe.

Hier eine sehr schöne Passage, in der Jonah mehr oder weniger unfreiwillig einen Wolf adoptiert hat, der sich dem Zirkus angeschlossen hat und nun langsam immer wilder wird:

One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”

Mir fehlen die Worte um zu beschreiben, was für ein Erlebnis dieses Buch war. Nach der letzten Seite überkommt einen Trauer und man wünscht sich zurück in diese seltsame, düstere Welt des Zirkus Tresaulti. Man ertappt sich dabei wie man zu den schönsten Passagen zurückblättert und die Worte in sich aufsaugt. Meine Daumen für den Nebula-Award sind gedrückt und ich denke, es ist nicht zu früh um zu sagen, dass dieses Buch eines meiner Jahreshighlights wird.

PRO: Poetische Sprache, tiefgehende Charaktere, ein spannender Plot, originelle Ideen und interessanter Stilmix.
CON: Mir fällt nichts, aber auch gar nichts ein, was ich hier zu beanstanden hätte.
FAZIT: Absolut lesenswert, für ein sehr junges Publikum vielleicht etwas verwirrend.

BEWERTUNG: 9,5/10

Auf der Homepage zum Roman findet man die ersten Seiten als Leseprobe, Videos und Infos sowie Kurzgeschichten über den Zirkus Tresaulti (genau darauf werde ich mich sofort stürzen).