I had started reading it just after Christmas, however, I just wasn't in the mindset for the book, so I shelved it to finish it later. When I started it this time, I felt much more ready to enter this intricate world. I must say, I wasn't disappointed. Morgenstern has done a brilliant job of painting this circus of black and white and shades of grey. Her detailed description of the acts, tents, and people make you feel like you are there watching everything happen. She pulls you in from the very beginning.
"The circus arrives with no warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not." (p. 3)
From that instant, you need to know more about this mysterious circus. You can tell it is something magical and it pulls you in and you don't fight it at all.
The story follows the lives of Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair from when they are just children up until their death. Celia is the daughter of Hector Bowen, aka Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco is an orphan adopted by Mr. A. H., aka Alexander. However, unlike normal children, they are used as pawns in a game by Hector and Alexander to see who has the better teaching method. But what are they teaching? you ask. Simple. Magic!
Celia and Marco spend their youths learning manipulations and enchanting and bindings when they are both pulled into Le Cirque des Rêves, a magical, dreamlike circus that travels the world with performances that defy everything you've ever thought to be true. This is the stage that Celia and Marco will spend their lives performing on, Marco behind the scenes keeping everyone bound to the circus safe and young, Celia as The Illusionist. They both add tents onto the circus over the years that become more unique as their talents progress and they begin to work together, against the advice of Mr. A. H. and Hector.
Over the years, we follow the lives of other people involved in the circus, some performers others Rêveurs, people who have fallen in love with the circus and follow it around the world when they can. You have Isobel Martin, a young lady who has fled a marriage who falls madly in love with Marco. She becomes a fortune teller for the circus and sends Marco letters so he can keep contact with the circus without actually being on the road with the circus. Then you have Tsukiko (Kiko for short). She is the contortionist for the circus and has tattoos that cover her body. Through the course of the book, we learn more about her mysterious past. Towards the end, we learn that she was a competitor in the last competition between Hector and Alexander, which she won 83 years ago. Although Celia has been looking for a way to end the competition with Marco without causing anyone's death, Tsukiko is the cause of the end of the competition, resulting in a stalemate between Marco and Celia.
Rules of the Game
The rules of how the circus can function are pretty vague. Each tutor must select a participant that they will teach in their own ways. At the end of the novel, we learn from Alexander that Hector was once a pupil of his, but he disagreed on how it should be taught. Alexander prefers a more ancient way of teaching with symbols and writings; Hector is more of a hands on teacher. They cannot interfere with the others pupil or the circus at large. The winner is declared when one of the pupils dies.
Other than that, we don't know much about how the game is supposed to work, and we only find out all of these different tidbits of the rules as the characters learn about them. We spend the entire book just as confused as Celia and Marco.
How the Circus Works
The circus itself is magic. It is held together by the acts of Celia and Marco. Marco creates a bonfire that keeps the circus alive, and as long as it is burning, then everything is okay. He also binds the different people in the circus to it, so that they never age (well, they age very slowly in a way that no one notices), no one is born (aside from the twins on opening day) and no one dies (unless magic is used to kill them), and no one can leave the circus for extended periods of time.
Celia Bowen: The daughter of Hector Bowen who appears at his door after her mother committed suicide when she is just 5 years old. She has a natural talent for magic and Hector teachers her how to use it. She is the Illusionist for the circus, and through her bond to the circus, ends up falling in love with Marco. She has a very defiant personality, but she is very loving. She hates that her father has bound her to this game that she does not understand, but she loves the circus and its members and wants the best for them. She dies in the end, with Marco, and their ghosts haunt the circus.
Marco Alisdair: An orphan adopted by Mr. A.H. who is taught magic through symbols and books. Although he does not travel with the circus, he is bound to it by the bonfire he created. He and Celia create different rooms for the circus, showing off their talents as they compete with each other. In the end, he agrees to let Tsukiko sacrifice him so that the circus can go on and Celia can live, but Celia cannot live without him.
Hector Bowen aka Prospero the Enchanter: A real magician who enlists his daughter in a game that he knows may end in her death when she is just 5 years old. In one of his acts, he tries to make himself disappear, but the magic used was too strong for him and he is now a ghost of what he used to be, bound to places that he has a strong connection with.
Mr. A. H. aka Alexander: The other real magician involved in the contest. He adopts Marco and trains him as his pawn for the game. He is a very strict man who always wears a grey suit.
Isobel Martin: A runaway trying to escape a marriage, she runs into Marco before the circus starts. She agrees to join the circus as a fortune teller so she can keep him in touch with what is happening at the circus. She falls in love with Marco, although it is unrequited. The night that Marco tells Isobel that he is in love with Celia, the circus begins to crumble. She tells Marco that she thought he loved her and thought that if and when Celia was out of the way, they would be able to be together, but she knows now that isn't true. She says there is no hard feelings, but she is the one who sends Marco to Tsukiko to sacrifice him, so I don't know how much I believe that. Hell hath no fury.
Friedrick Herr Thiessen: In the beginning of the novel, Herr Thiessen is commissioned to make a clock, but he is not told what it will be used for. Years later, while he is on vacation, he is told about Le Cirque des Rêves, so he goes to check it out, and finds the clock in the courtyard is the very clock he made. Herr Thiessen falls in love with the circus and becomes the first of the Rêveurs, and inspires the costume of the Rêveurs, black and white with a small piece of red, like a rose or a scarf. Herr Thiessen writes newspapers about the circus, and these articles are translated across the globe so that people everywhere can fall in love with it. Through these articles, Celia contacts Herr Thiessen and they become friends, although they don't meet until they have been exchanging letter for quite some time. On October 31, 1901, Herr Thiessen is killed when Chandresh throws a knife at Mr. A. H. and A.H. moves out of the way, letting Herr Thiessen take the knife instead. Celia tries to use her magic to save him, but is unsuccessful and blames herself for his death.
Chandresh Christophe Lefevre: Chandresh is the technical owner of Le Cirque des Rêves. He is known for is theatrical productions pushing the boundaries. Marco spends most of his life working for Chandresh, but also altering his memories so that he does not remember everything he sees or hears. He is an alcoholic, and mixed with his blurred memories, he causes the death of Herr Thiessen. The circus members gather at his house frequently to have lavish parties.
Tara and Lainie Burgess: Sisters who help with the production of the circus because of their eye for fine details. The sisters are witty and never admit to which one is older, although they say they are not twins. Tara becomes aware of the magic that holds the circus together, however, when she goes looking for information for Mr. A.H., she distractedly steps in front of a moving train and dies. Although nothing is confirmed on if A.H. is involved, I highly suspect he altered her memory, causing her to step in front of the train. At the funeral, Lainie delivers the most beautiful eulogy I have ever heard.
"'I do not mourn the loss of my sister because she will always be with me, in my heart,' she says. 'I am, however, rather annoyed that my Tara has left me to suffer you lot alone. I do not see as well without her. I do not hear as well without her. I do not feel as well without her. I would be better off without a hand or a leg than without my sister. Then at least she would be here to mock my appearance and claim to be the pretty one for a change. We have all lost our Tara, but I have lost a part of myself as well." (p. 243)
Tsukiko: The contortionist for the circus, she shows up at one of Chandresh's parties and agrees that she will join. She is a regular at Chandresh's parties after that. Through the course of the novel, we learn that she was a previous contestant in the game that Celia and Marco are now involved in and that she was the winner. She had fallen in love with her opponent, Hinata, who killed herself when she could not take being involved in the competition any longer. In 1901, Celia tells Tsukiko that she is going to try to find a way to keep the circus alive without her or Marco, and Tsukiko gives her one year to complete this task. When Celia fails, Tsukiko takes it upon herself to end it. She plans to sacrifice Marco, who she feels the lesser of the two since he does not actually perform, and he agrees. Celia does not like this though, and Tsukiko ends up watching the two of them "die."
Penelope "Poppet" Aislin Murray and Winston "Widget" Aidan Murray: The twins and last people born in the circus. They are known for their fiery red hair and their performances with the kittens. They both share an affinity towards magic, which may be due in part to their birth happening as the bonfire was being lit the first time. They are the only people part of the circus who age naturally. After the circus falls apart, they, with the help of Bailey, bind themselves to the circus to keep it going.
Bailey Clarke: Bailey first attends the circus as a little boy, when his sister dares him to go into it when it is closed. Here he meets Poppet for the first time, and she gives him one of her white gloves. He falls in love with the circus and dreams about it often. When the circus comes back when he is older, he visits it again and meets Isobel, who tells him how to find Poppet. He becomes good friends with the twins. Poppet tells Bailey that she knows that he can save the circus and he needs to run away with them. After some thinking, Bailey agrees, but finds that the circus has left already. He joins some Rêveurs and makes his way to New York, where he again breaks into the circus and finds Tsukiko. She takes him to Marco, where Marco and Celia tell him the he is the only one who can save the circus, but they give him a choice of whether or not he wants to do this. Because the circus is his home, he agrees, and Marco binds him to the circus.
What I Liked
- There is mystery around every corner. The entire place is so magical and beautiful. I want so badly for this circus to be real so I can visit it and become a Rêveur.
- 90% of the time, I love Morgenstern's writing style. She puts you right inside the circus and you can practically feel it buzzing to life around you.
- I really loved all of the character, even the ones I hated. The personalities of them were so intricate, they are like real people.
- The different tents of the circus. I can't pick which one is my favorite. The Wishing Tree, the Cloud Maze, the Illusionists Tent. I have no clue, don't make me pick!
What I Didn't Like
- We are never given a firm set of rules and the reader only finds things out at the characters do. It makes it very confusing. This is the 10% of the writing I don't like.
- Are Celia and Marco dead? Is Hector really dead? I mean, Hector's invisibility is due to a performance gone wrong, so is he really there if he has to tether himself to place? The same with Celia and Marco. A.H. feels that their lack of being physical makes the dead, but Widget says they are alive.
- This book requires some serious paying attention. It's like Game of Thrones, you stop paying attention for two seconds and everyone is dead and a new person is in charge.
- The book alters from second and third person point of views, and is told from the eyes of many different characters. I felt like I was getting whiplash keeping up with who I was seeing the circus through.
I both liked it more than I thought I would, and less than I thought I would, if that makes any sense. I think the only people who will understand that is people who have read the book. I didn't want the magic to end. Every time I opened up the book again, it was like coming home to old friends. But I wanted it to be done with so that I could find out what the point of it all ways. I often found myself getting a headache trying to figure it out before it happened. All in all though, I did thoroughly enjoy the book, and I can see myself reading it again and learning more about Le Cirque des Rêves and falling in love all over again.
Pages: 512 (paperback)
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
Would I Recommend It: Definitely! Just not if you're reading something else or super busy. It needs your undivided attention.