This is the book that beat Ready Player One for the Locus Award (Best First Novel). Now, I adored Ready Player One, so I had to see what could beat it.
Well, I definitely liked Ready Player One better, but I can see why The Night Circus won. Contests and prizes and general acclaim tend to go to subtle, ethereal, almost inscrutable writing, not stuff that’s more plot-based, no matter how well-constructed or well-written that plot is.
I did like The Night Circus, just not as much as Ready Player One. I found the use of present tense jarring at first, but after the first few pages I got used to it. (Sidebar: we have been so conditioned to past tense in prose that any use of present tense is going to be seen as innovative and/or disruptive. The very best example of present tense done smoothly and well is Bleak House, where the narrative switches between past and present depending on whether it’s first-person Ada or third-person omniscient narration. My personal favourite is The Rainmaker by John Grisham, which sucked me in before I fully realised it was present tense – and then when I did realise, about a third of the way in, I had to go back through and make sure it was deliberate and not just a proofreading failure.)
So the present-tense didn’t bother me. No, what bothered me were the short second-person passages. Now, I don’t know about you, but my exposure to second-person narration, and hence my initial reaction when faced with it, is Choose Your Own Adventure type books. As such, I kept waiting for some sort of disaster to strike “me” walking around the circus, and when nothing did I felt tense and disappointed. One review I read said that it put the reader in the middle of the circus, but it didn’t do that for me – it just took me out of the story and broke the connections I was forming with Celia, Marco, Bailey, Poppet, etc. I found it unnecessary and pandering and even now, after finishing the book and thinking about it as a whole, I don’t think it added much, if anything, to the story or the structure. It tipped the balance and broke the story-bubble and, for me, one of the greatest strengths of the book was its balance.
For if we learn anything from the circus, it is that destruction follows imbalance. The entire point of the competition is to tip the balance between chaos and order and, in doing so, to destroy the other player. (Collateral damage includes destroying a part of yourself, and anyone else who may have unwittingly gotten involved.) Celia and Marco work best when they are creating together, when they are each enhancing what the other has done – for one of them to win would destroy not only what they have done together but what they would do in the future. And the only way the circus can continue is if the balance between them is maintained – if either one of them tips the balance, the circus and everything in it will disintegrate.
And the book itself, outside of the second-person interludes, is fairly well-balanced between the various threads: Celia, Marco, and Bailey; those affecting the circus and those being affected by it; exposition and events. But then the second-person interludes come in, describing things that haven’t been introduced yet, or things that were described better and more evocatively a few pages before, or things that you think should become significant but never reappear.
Maybe on a reread, this won’t bother me so much. But when I finished Ready Player One, I wanted to jump back into the world, to go deeper into the details and find the hidden meanings in references. I don’t feel the same way about The Night Circus or Erin Morgenstern’s writing. It was nice enough, but I’m not compelled to reread it or relive it. I won’t turn down another book by Morgenstern, but I won’t rush to read it, either.