Modern books have a tendency towards short chapters. Well, non-Sci-Fi books that is. I once read a book whose prologue was sixty some-odd pages, but I digress. The Night Circus continues this newfangled tradition. However, I was impressed with how each chapter was relevant; each either furthered the plot or deepened a character. Missing were those chapters that are thrown in for filler, because the author needs to distract you from a clue that may give away the ending that was just revealed in a previous chapter. Even the seemingly gratuitous Bailey subplot eventually turns out to be important. But that’s not where the story starts.
The story starts with a challenge. Two mysterious gentlemen make a wager. One goes by the nom de plume of Prospero the Enchanter. He is, as you may surmise, a magician. The other man is known simply as Alexander, or Mr. A. H. He too dabbles in magic. But their styles are vastly different. Prospero physically taps into some mystical power that runs through the world but only those with skill can even see it, let alone manipulate it. Alexander, on the other hand, uses spells and talismans. It’s akin to the difference between a magician and a witch – both use magic, but in very different ways. It’s this difference that is at the heart of the wager: each thinks their way is superior, so they agree to train a protégé and pit them against one another. But the arena for this battle isn’t run of the mill. No, it is a circus.
The circus is unlike any other. It operates only at night and is devoid of all colors save black, white, and gray. The tents act as chess pieces for our two combatants: Celia, Prospero’s disciple and daughter, and Marco, Alexander’s pupil. If you thought the magical tents would be the heart of the story, you’d be mistaken. The many wonders of the circus are almost overshadowed by the vibrant characters and they even nearly become part of the plot itself. Celia and Marco are joined by wonderful cast of characters and the mysterious quality they all hold very nearly conceals the ominous undercurrent flowing through the plot – almost, but not quite. The timing of the story is different as well.
Remember that Bailey character I mentioned earlier? Well, his story starts at least a few years after the one surrounding Celia and Marco. As the chapters alternate, the timing of the two stories grows closer together. When the inevitable occurs and Celia and Marco fall in love, Bailey’s story lines up with theirs. It is quite easy to grow attached to each of the characters and the aforementioned ominous feeling points to a tragic ending. In some ways it is indeed tragic. But as with everything in this story, the ending is not quite that simple. I loved how the ending played with the idea that time is cyclical, not linear. If that’s confusing, you’ll just have to read the book to find out for yourself what I mean.