This was exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time. I’d been in a reading funk, not wanting to read anything new and too tired of dry stuff. I needed something fun and beautiful, and this delivered.
This is a very sensual book, full of details and extravagant description. It has, at its core, the story of a competition between two students of magic who are pitted in a life-long duel against one another. The circus is merely the venue. However, the circus is more of the book than the duel is. Fire and fabric and ravens and doves and living statues and caramel and autumn leaves swirling at the base of an amazing cuckoo clock–who wouldn’t love that?
Morgenstern uses magic in a way that is, well, magical. The circus is full of impossibilities that my literal mind usually balks at, namely, how do you transport an ever-burning cauldron by train? Who could bear to touch the metal, much less hoist it? What are the clouds in the cloud maze made of? How do you keep the ice garden from melting, and what do you do when it breaks? The answer to all of these is “magic.” It makes no sense, it’s physically impossible but it’s not meant to make sense, it’s just meant to be beautiful and wonderful and amazing.
The story takes place around the turn of the century, and it has an amazing clock, so it feels almost steampunk. There are bowler hats and fine dresses and hand-written cards inviting people to dine at a fashionable hour. Morgenstern makes a brief nod at period mores with regards to women, but mostly that’s just glossed over. So, it’s not anything like a historical fiction, but the sumptuous details won me over. I loved the kittens-jumping-through-hoops act. I loved the tent full of bottles. I loved each detailed description of yet another amazing act or costume.
I’ll warn future readers that the plot isn’t that spectacular. Only one twist caught me by surprise, but most of what happened was telegraphed. Think of it as being more like a music-video than a documentary. Not much happens, and what does happen is predictable, but the setting and costumes are so pretty that you don’t much care.