This book is absolutely gorgeous and inventive. If you like like lush prose and vivid worlds, you will love this book.
Plot: two magicians have an ongoing proxy war between one another to see who can choose and train up a better magician. This book follows a battle that eventually creates the night circus, a magical place where the two combatants fight to show who is a better magician by creating acts and displays that normal people won’t realize is real magic.
This is a terrible plot summary. I can’t say that plot doesn’t really matter in this book because literally every character, event and item are all Chekhov’s guns, but I suppose it is probably fair to say that plot is secondary to the main event, which is the detailed and inventive descriptions of magic. What is perhaps most surprising is how fleshed out the characters are in a book where the characters are probably even more secondary to the aesthetic and the plot. But the dialogue and characters, for all the surrealism of the setting, really act to ground the story in brilliant but flawed people that come across as so real it’s almost its own magic.
It also has one of my favorite lines of the year:
“I know,” Celia says. “You’re not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were if that would make it easier, but it’s not true. You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.”
One thing I’ll say about the way the narrative is structured. It’s an acquired taste. We go forward and back in time a lot, and often to different places, following different strings of the story. Other reviewers have noted that they had to actually take notes to keep track of the who, what, where, when, why of the story and that makes sense. I think the idea here is that in the same way that the magicians are trying to disorient the guests so they are forced to be more present and engaged but with their attention also diverted from where you don’t want them to look. It’s a neat trick, and I think in some instances it makes sense, but I can’t say it worked for me. I mostly had no issues keeping up with the story but any time I had to pause and think about where this is in the narrative, it took me out of the story, and I didn’t feel like it actually added anymore more to the narrative than a standard chronological story would have.
It looks like a movie is finally happening, which makes sense given how intensely visual this book is, and I will happily watch it.