A Superficially Good Novel

I liked Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus in spite of myself. The story concerns two sociopathic old sorcerers who pit their young protoges against each other in a fight-to-the-death over who can make a certain circus the most enchanting. Naturally, there are complications as the protoges fall in love. All of this is played out against a nineteenth-century backdrop with sumptuous descriptions of luxury and magic.

I don’t care for books with magic or the supernatural in them. I think we spend a lot of energy playing out the arbitrary rules of the magical universe and often a plot resolution appears out of thin air, so to speak. There is some of that in The Night Circus, but I was won over by the charming characters and the imaginative vision of the circus.

Still, I want to know what it was all for. I do enjoy pure imagination (Wow! Look! Dinosaurs!) but I’m very much a What’s-the-meaning-of-it-all? kind of guy. I basically want sci-fi and fantasy to be allegorical commentary on the real world or at least on the human condition. The Night Circus isn’t that. It’s about the same two or three things that most stories about magic are about: rising to an arbitrary challenge, true love for no real reason, a sense of wonder at unreal things, and charming people.

Gee, I sound like I didn’t like it. Really, I did. It was very clever. But it’s not Jorge Luis Borges, where the magic stands for something.

There ARE some things I really, really didn’t like. Some of the characters are very cruel and they do not get their comeuppance. Even one of the nice characters is a serious manipulator who steals years from another man’s consciousness. We’re still supposed to love him.

Yes, I really did like it. It had a vision that was enchanting. That vision had enough texture for me to chew on so that I didn’t dwell on how shallow the whole thing was.

Honestly, I enjoyed it. I probably won’t read another novel with magic in it for ten years, but I don’t regard it as a waste of time.

Still, this reviewer giveth and this reviewer taketh away. If you want a novel with atmosphere, visual imagination, charming characters and a crackling style that is actually about something in the real world, try Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. There, my conscience is clear. **** because I’m feeling sentimental and the novel had kids in it.

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