Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Night Circus: A Review

For September, Club Fantasci will be reviewing The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks. Our Google+ Hangout, which was the unfortunate victim of technical difficulties last month, will be airing on September 28 at 7pm CST time. 

For those who missed it, I've reposted my review of The Night Circus for August's meeting here. It truly is a shame we weren't able to bring you the Hangout to watch as there were some rather interesting things said about the book. My song for the book is Miranda Lambert's I Wanna Die. I had a hard time picking a song because I couldn't come up with anything that captured the feel of the book. This song, at least, captured the theme of the climax.

And here's what I thought of the book....


Le Cirque de Reve – the Night Circus, an exotic circus open only during the hours of nightfall, a place of beauty, and wonder, and dreams made flesh. Here, the circus-goer can wander the mysterious paths between black and white striped tents, venturing into each tent as they please. Within each tent, a wonder – an illusionist, a fortune-teller, and sights even more wondrous and exotic, a garden of ice, a tree of wishes, a labyrinth of spectacular rooms, each even more fantastic and unbelievable than the last. And above all, the smell of caramel and popcorn. The Night Circus – the arena for a magical challenge. 

Celia and Marco - unwilling antagonists in a battle of wits between their near-immortal mentors to prove one school of thought better than another. Bound to the challenge by magic, compelled to strive against one another, yet drawn to one another like moths to the flame. 

Even now, the day after I finished the book, this is all I can tell you about the book. The story is easily summarised to a line or two, indicating a simplicity of storyline that is rare and not necessarily desirable. The scenes and individual events already blur and fade because they were part of a gradual build to the ending, rather than important events in their own right. 

I enjoyed the destination of this book, but the journey often left me flat. Did I like Celia and Marco? In a vague, distant kind of way, yes. Do I feel I know the characters intimately, that I could tell you how they might respond in any given situation? No, not at all – in fact, if I were to describe the characters, I could only do so in vague terms. Was I invested in the outcome? Again, only in a slightly hopeful way.

The book is written in a peculiar fashion, utilising both second person point of view (use of ‘you’ instead of ‘I’, ‘he’, or ‘she’) and omniscient third POV (use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ in a remote fashion, where we feel the story is narrated to us and we are kept at arm’s length from the characters).

I detest the use of second person point of view in this book. It is used, I think, to create the sense the reader is in the circus. It irritated me, and distracted me from the story – not a good thing when I was already hardly invested in the story. Although I concede that the ending, the culmination of the use of second POV, was clever, it was not enough to compensate for its annoyances during the book. Third omniscient POV is what largely kept me from connecting with the characters. Never allowed inside the character’s heads, I never felt I got to know them, never got the chance to live and breathe their lives, their desires, and their fears.

The book uses present tense to compensate for the remote POV (he walks instead of he walked) but this, too is unconventional, as it often distracts the reader or creates a sense of discomfort – we are, by nature, accustomed to telling stories in past tense, even our own stories of each passing day, and use of other tenses can be an uncomfortable experience. I found it distracting and it didn’t sufficiently compensate for the POV.

The book also lacked conflict in my opinion. The main conflict turned out to be Celia’s and Marco’s desire to be rid of the challenge – the tension between what they must do by the rules of the game, and what they want to do. But the rules are so vague, each ‘move’ in the game so abstract (consisting mostly of each of them contributing to the circus by means of magic, adding a new tent or ‘act’ only made possible by magic), that the book is more than half over before the reader starts to gain a sense of this conflict. Other conflicts that might exist between the characters (for example, Celia and Marco’s blossoming romance, or the potential love triangle with Isobel) is negated by the use of omniscient third – we never wonder if Celia’s feelings for Marco are reciprocated because the narrator has already told us they are.

As a result, I found I had nothing to keep me reading except a vague curiosity in where the book was going. If I hadn’t been reading this for Club Fantasci, I may well have stopped in the first 10%. As it was, I was well past halfway before I felt I needed to read to the end. In my opinion, that is far too late.

My strongest reaction was early in the book to Prospero the Enchanter when he slices Celia’s fingers open in a cruel fashion to teach her to heal herself – but the impact of this, even, could have been made more immediate, and a stronger basis for the reader to identify with Celia if another POV had been used. Later, in the story, the emotional impact of this event in her life is played down.

The Black Moment (the moment of crisis, when the reader should catch their breath in fear and anticipation, waiting to see how terribly wrong everything has gone, and if all will be well) had me curious, but hardly emotionally invested to the point I should have been. I did foresee Celia’s plan for ending the game, and although it wasn’t what I wanted to happen, I found the most I could muster at the prospect of an unhappy ending was a mild annoyance.

While the story was different, novel, unique, and had a fabulous atmosphere and mood, I can only say I feel every opportunity for passion, for strong emotion, for the things readers hunger for, was missed. While I was not unhappy with the ending, this is not a story that will stay with me for years to come – or even perhaps past the week. 


You can also check out the reviews by co-hosts Dionne Lister and David Lowry

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The Fear of Opinions said...

I agree with this review 100%. I thought something was wrong with me, that I didn't "get' what everyone else loved about this book. thank you!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

You are definitely not alone. Neither I nor any of my co-hosts at Club Fantasci were able to grasp what all the hype was about

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