Before reading this book, I read a bunch of reviews, including critical reviews. So I went in knowing there’d be a lot of description and that the so-called “duel” involves creating magical circus attractions. And I thought, that’s cool, I like description and don’t mind a slow pace or lack of action when it’s a good book.
Here’s the thing about this book. It depends, entirely, on descriptions of the magical, mysterious circus. Not plot, or characters, or writing style; it depends on the reader being swept away by descriptions of the caramel-scented air, the circular paths between tents, the bonfire that never goes out.... and so on. Whole chapters do nothing but describe how magical the circus is and how much everyone loves it. So if you want to fantasize about visiting a magical circus, this is the book for you.
This book has been so well-received that I feel a bit churlish detailing everything that it’s lacking, but I’m going to do so anyway and hope I’m not the only one to have this reaction.
The plot, about two magicians forced into a competition, doesn’t really move until the second half of the book and even there it doesn’t move much.
The writing style is nothing special. I see this book called “literary” in some corners, but we must understand that word differently. A book isn’t automatically literary by including lots of description, a slow-moving plot, chapters on end in which the main characters don’t appear, and a few Shakespeare references (pointed out by the characters for those who wouldn’t otherwise have realized they’re quoting Shakespeare). Those features might often be found in literary books, but true literary books have excellent character development and writing style, while this book is no better than average in either area.
It’s full of one-sentence paragraphs, though.
You know, for emphasis.
Which after awhile just starts to look amateurish.
About the characters, then. I won’t say they’re all bad, because they’re not. I was glad to see that this is a cast of adults, men and women both. Some of them, including the protagonists, seem to have some potential, and the romance between Celia and Marco is sweet more often than it’s cheesy. But beyond that, there just isn’t much there. Celia and Marco are especially two-dimensional as kids--they had no interests beyond magic? no friends? they never tried to rebel? they never wanted or aspired to anything else? Marco was happy to sit in a room alone all day as an eight-year-old boy? Celia never noticed men until meeting him as an adult?--and it was hard throughout to shake the feeling that there was nothing more to these characters than what appeared on the page. But there’s so little complexity to the entire cast (maybe after a decade or more, someone might get tired of the circus or start to feel trapped?). And the ramifications of many of the characters' actions aren’t even dealt with (is everybody okay with being made sterile without being asked?).
And then there’s the dialogue, which is stilted and awkward. And then there’s the fact that beyond the circus, there is no sense of the time period the story is set in (late 19th century) or the many locales in which it takes place. That may have been intentional; there’s a mention of the circus seeming more real than the outside world. But then there’s the sheer self-indulgence of it all; all the descriptions of the circus and of late-night dinners and enchanted attire and so on that overwhelm the book. Not to mention the breathlessness which with the author treats every new appearance of magic, as if readers will be astonished that--for instance--the circus closes due to inclement weather several hours before the weather turns bad, in a book where this sort of thing has happened since page two. And there's the unconvincing way magic is presented to the outside world: apparently everybody assumes it's just a trick, but how things like clothing turning into birds can be passed off as mundane stage-magicianship are beyond me.
Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this book. That, or just not the right reader. I will go see the movie though: I imagine the marvels of the circus will be more marvelous on the screen than in Morgenstern’s rather uninspired prose, and the minimal plot should fit well into a two-hour film.