Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Book Review: The Night Circus
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - You may have heard of this popular novel and you may have heard that it is steampunk. Or might be steampunk. I'll get to that in a minute. First, what is this book about. Well, it's about two magicians (real magicians, that is) in the late Victorian period who set a challenge between two of their students. The venue for this challenge is a new circus. The circus is only open at night, and presents mysterious and wondrous illusions to attendees with the assistance of magic. The story follows several different point of view characters and jumps around in time a bit as the characters come into contact with the circus. Honestly, it's difficult to convey much about this book, as so much goes without explanation for most of the story.
I found it to be a very page-turning and absorbing novel. It reminds me strongly of Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norell. The way that magic interacts with the everyday world is similar, although this is a much less dense book. It's also impossible not to think of the TV series Carnivale, since that is also set at a circus and involves a supernatural battle between two sides. Ultimately, I feel a bit disappointed by The Night Circus. What kept me turning the pages was a desire to understand the many mysteries presented, but ultimately few of those mysteries are explained. It feels a bit like a book with a huge amount of style but not as much substance as I would have liked. The way the story is told is clever and atmospheric, but I didn't ever connect very strongly to the main characters and therefore never really felt much impact from the story.
Now, is this a steampunk book? Well, not exactly. It's set mostly in the 1890s and 1900s, but the time period doesn't really have a huge amount of importance. Beyond a certain politeness of manner, there's not much that is Victorian in character. The novel describes the colors of clothing, without ever talking about the style of them, so it's actually easy to forget this is a period piece. And since most of the character are either circus performers or magicians they are pretty out of the Victorian mainstream in attitude. There's not really any steampunk technology involved, either. The fantastic elements come from magic, not technology. Thought there is a clockmaker character, he mostly just makes really amazing clocks. So this is a Victorian fantasy novel rather than a Victorian science fiction novel. I certainly recommend this novel to steampunks, as I think many steampunks will enjoy it. But I can't honestly call the book itself steampunk. Now if a film was made of the book, I would probably call it steampunk without hesitation, because the clothing and design would be a wonderful combination of Victorian and circus, in black and white. It would be impossible to call the clothing anything but steampunk. So it does occupy an interesting ambiguous position.
This isn't a perfect novel, in my opinion, but it is one that I recommend to fans of historical fantasy.