But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.
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Read an Excerpt
The circus arrives without 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.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.
Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe.
And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn
“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.
The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred. The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind. The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock.
The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.
The sun disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from waiting, a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You yourself are debating departing when it happens.
First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.
All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.
When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.
Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back.
At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. First a C is distinguishable, followed by more letters. A q, oddly, and several e’s. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:
Le Cirque des Rêves
Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.
“The Circus of Dreams,” comes the reply. The girl smiles delightedly.
Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.
Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.
"The Whole of Le Cirque des Rêves is formed by a series of circles. Perhaps it is a tribute to the origin of the word 'circus,' deriving from the Greek kirkos meaning circle, or ring. There are many such nods to the phenomenon of the circus in a historical sense, though it is hardly a traditional circus. Rather than a single tent with rings enclosed within, this circus contains clusters of tents like pyramids, some large and others quite small. They are set within circular paths, contained within a circular fence. Looping and continuous."
Friedrick Thiessen, 1892
"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moon-light, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."
Oscar Wilde, 1888
New York, February 1873
The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.
The lawyer who escorts her to the theater refuses to explain despite the manager’s protestations, abandoning her as quickly as he can with no more than a shrug and the tip of a hat.
The theater manager does not need to read the envelope to know who the girl is for. The bright eyes peering out from under a cloud of unruly brown curls are smaller, wider versions of the magician’s own.
He takes her by the hand, her small fingers hanging limp within his. She refuses to remove her coat despite the warmth of the theater, giving only an adamant shake of her head when he asks her why.
The manager takes the girl to his office, not knowing what else to do with her. She sits quietly on an uncomfortable chair beneath a line of framed posters advertising past productions, surrounded by boxes of tickets and receipts. The manager brings her a cup of tea with an extra lump of sugar, but it remains on the desk, untouched, and grows cold.
The girl does not move, does not fidget in her seat. She stays perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap. Her gaze is fixed downward, focused on her boots that do not quite touch the floor. There is a small scuff on one toe, but the laces are knotted in perfect bows.
The sealed envelope hangs from the second topmost button of her coat, until Prospero arrives.
She hears him before the door opens, his footsteps heavy and echoing in the hall, unlike the measured pace of the manager who has come and gone several times, quiet as a cat.
“There is also a . . . package for you, sir,” the manager says as he opens the door, ushering the magician into the cramped office before slipping off to attend to other theater matters, having no desire to witness what might become of this encounter.
The magician scans the office, a stack of letters in one hand, a black velvet cape lined with shockingly white silk cascading behind him, expecting a paper-wrapped box or crate. Only when the girl looks up at him with his own eyes does he realize what the theater manager was referring to.
Prospero the Enchanter’s immediate reaction upon meeting his daughter is a simple declaration of: “Well, fuck.”
The girl returns her attention to her boots.
The magician closes the door behind him, dropping the stack of letters on the desk next to the teacup as he looks at the girl.
He rips the envelope from her coat, leaving the pin clinging steadfastly to its button.
While the writing on the front bears his stage name and the theater address, the letter inside greets him with his given name, Hector Bowen.
He skims over the contents, any emotional impact desired by the author failing miserably and finally. He pauses at the only fact he deems relevant: that this girl now left in his custody is, obviously, his own daughter and that her name is Celia.
“She should have named you Miranda,” the man called Prospero the Enchanter says to the girl with a chuckle. “I suppose she was not clever enough to think of it.”
The girl looks up at him again. Dark eyes narrow beneath her curls.
The teacup on the desk begins to shake. Ripples disrupt the calm surface as cracks tremble across the glaze, and then it collapses in shards of flowered porcelain. Cold tea pools in the saucer and drips onto the floor, leaving sticky trails along the polished wood.
The magician’s smile vanishes. He glances back at the desk with a frown, and the spilled tea begins seeping back up from the floor. The cracked and broken pieces stand and re-form themselves around the liquid until the cup sits complete once more, soft swirls of steam rising into the air.
The girl stares at the teacup, her eyes wide.
Hector Bowen takes his daughter’s face in his gloved hand, scrutinizing her expression for a moment before releasing her, his fingers leaving long red marks across her cheeks.
“You might be interesting,” he says.
The girl does not reply.
He makes several attempts to rename her in the following weeks, but she refuses to respond to anything but Celia.
Several months later, once he decides she is ready, the magician writes a letter of his own. He includes no address, but it reaches its destination across the ocean nonetheless.
What People are Saying About This
"The Night Circus made me happy. Playful and intensely imaginative, Erin Morgenstern has created the circus I have always longed for and she has populated it with dueling love-struck magicians, precocious kittens, hyper-elegant displays of beauty and complicated clocks. This is a marvelous book." --( Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife)
"‘Dark as soot and bright as sparks,' The Night Circus still holds me willingly captive in a world of almost unbearable beauty. This is a love story on a grand scale: it creates, it destroys, it ultimately transcends. Take a bow, Erin Morgenstern. This is one of the best books I have ever read.” --(Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader)
"Pure pleasure...Erin Morgenstern is a gifted, classic storyteller, a tale-teller, a spinner of the charmed and mesmerizing -- I had many other things I was supposed to be doing, but the book kept drawing me back in and I tore through it. You can be certain this riveting debut will create a group of rêveurs all its own." --(Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake)
"The Night Circus is a gorgeously imagined fable poised in the high latitudes of Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde, with a few degrees toward Hesse's "Steppenwolf"for dangerous spice. The tale is masterfully written and invites allegorical interpretations even as its leisurely but persistent suspense gives it compelling charm. An enchanting read.” --(Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love )
"A riveting debut. The Night Circus pulls you into a world as dark as it is dazzling, fully-realized but still something out of a dream. You will not want to leave it.” --(Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife)
"Every once in awhile you find a novel so magical that there is no escaping its spell. The Night Circus is one of these rarities -- engrossing, beautifully written and utterly enchanting. If you choose to read just one novel this year, this is it." --(Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology )
“Magical. Enchanting. Spellbinding. Mesmerizing.” —Associated Press
“Erin Morgenstern has created the circus I have always longed for and she has populated it with dueling love-struck magicians, precocious kittens, hyper-elegant displays of beauty and complicated clocks. This is a marvelous book.” —Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife
“Get ready to be won over. . . . Part love story, part fable, and a knockout debut. . . . So sparklingly alive, you’ll swear the pages are breathing in your hands. . . . The Night Circus defies both genres and expectations.” —The Boston Globe
“A riveting debut. The Night Circus pulls you into a world as dark as it is dazzling, fully-realized but still something out of a dream. You will not want to leave it.” —Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife
“The Night Circus is the real deal, the kind of novel that will appeal to romantics, history buff, circus aficionados, mystery fans, and lovers of a good story. . . . Steeped in circus lore, filled with evocative scenes of magic and illusion, enriched by characters as varied as the clockmaker who crafted the circus’s iconic timepiece . . . The Night Circus is worth staying up for.” —Bookreporter
“One of the best books I have ever read.” —Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader
“[A] few pages in . . . and you know you are in the presence of an extraordinary storyteller.” —The Daily Beast
“Echoing the immense pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Night Circus presents a sprightly version of 19th-century English magic. . . . A love story for adults that feels luxuriously romantic.” —The Washington Post
“Dark and extravagantly imagined.” —People
“Pure pleasure. . . . Erin Morgenstern is a gifted, classic storyteller, a tale-teller, a spinner of the charmed and mesmerizing—I had many other things I was supposed to be doing, but the book kept drawing me back in and I tore through it. You can be certain this riveting debut will create a group of rêveurs all its own.” —Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
“[Morgenstern] employs her supple prose to conjure up a series of wonders: A maze made of clouds, a ship of books floating on a sea of ink, a tent that seems to contain a vast desert.” —Salon
“Reading this novel is like having a marvelous dream, in which you are asleep enough to believe everything that is happening, but awake enough to relish the experience and understand that it is magical.” —Newsday
“Morgenstern’s exquisitely realized world will have [you] wishing to run off and join the circus.” —USA Today
“Morgenstern’s novel feels crafted from the fabric of a dream, and the circus itself never fails to astound. For me, the only real disappointment was that I couldn’t buy a ticket.” —Yvonne Zip, The Christian Science Monitor
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Step right up and prepare to be enchanted. . . . [Will] make you sit right down on the floor of your library or bookstore to see what Morgenstern conjures up next.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“The Night Circus is a gorgeously imagined fable poised in the high latitudes of Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde, with a few degrees toward Hesse’s Steppenwolf for dangerous spice. The tale is masterfully written and invites allegorical interpretations even as its leisurely but persistent suspense gives it compelling charm. An enchanting read.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
“A Victorian curio cabinet. . . . In The Night Circus, Morgenstern makes the artificial real, turning atmosphere into art.” —Kansas City Star
“The world of The Night Circus is elaborately designed, fantastically imagined and instantly intoxicating—as if the reader had downed a glass of absinthe and leapt into a hallucination.” —Rachel Syme, NPR
“[A] dazzling foray into the dreamscape of illusion.” —Family Circle
“Every once in awhile you find a novel so magical that there is no escaping its spell. The Night Circus is one of these rarities—engrossing, beautifully written and utterly enchanting. If you choose to read just one novel this year, this is it.” —Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel opens with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” How is this sentiment explored in The Night Circus? Who in the novel is a dreamer? And what is their punishment for being so?
2. The novel frequently changes narrative perspective. How does this transition shape your reading of the novel and your connection to the characters and the circus? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story from varied perspectives?
3. The narrative also follows a non-linear sequence—shifting at times from present to past. How effective was this method in regards to revealing conflict in the novel?
4. There are a number of allusions to Shakespeare throughout the text: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and As You Like It. Explain these references—how does each play reveal itself in the novel?
5. What role does time play in the novel? From Friedrick Thiessen’s clock, to the delayed aging of the circus developers, to the birth of the twins—is time manipulated or fated at the circus?
6. “Chandresh relishes reactions. Genuine reactions, not mere polite applause. He often values the reactions over the show itself. A show without an audience is nothing, after all. In the response of the audience, that is where the power of performance lives.” How does this statement apply to both Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition? Which audience is more valuable: one that is complicit or one that is unknowing?
7. Chandresh is portrayed as a brilliant and creative perfectionist at the beginning of the novel, yet he slowly unravels as the competition matures. Is Chandresh merely a puppet of the competition—solely used for his ability to provide a venue for the competition—or do his contributions run deeper?
8. Marco asserts that Alexander H. is a father figure to him (though his paternal instincts aren’t readily noticeable). In what ways does Alexander provide for Marco and in what ways has he failed him?
9. Celia emphasizes that keeping the circus controlled is a matter of “balance.” And Marco suggests that the competition is not a chess game, but rather, a balancing of scales. However, both the circus and the competition get disordered at times—leaving both physical and emotional casualties in their wake. Is the circus ever really in “balance,” or is it a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the next?
10. From the outside, the circus is full of enchantments and delights, but behind the scenes, the delicate push and pull of the competition results in some sinister events: i.e. Tara Burgess and Friedrick Thiessen’s deaths. How much is the competition at fault for these losses and how much is it the individual’s doing?
11. How do you view the morality of the circus in regards to the performers and developers being unknowing pawns in Celia and Marco’s competition? Do Celia and Marco owe an explanation to their peers about their unwitting involvement?
12. Friedrick Thiessen asserts that he thinks of himself “not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to the circus.” He is a voice for those unable to attend the circus and suggests that the circus is bigger than itself. What role do the rêveurs play in keeping the spirit of the circus alive outside of the confines of the circus tents?
13. What is Hector’s role in determining the final fate of the competition? He lectures Celia about remaining independent and not interfering with her partner, but ultimately, Hector largely influences the outcome of the competition. Explain this influence.
14. Poppet and Widget are especially affected by the lighting of the bonfire. How crucial are their “specialties” to the ongoing success of the circus?
15. Isobel is a silent, yet integral, partner in both the circus and the competition. She has an ally in Tsukiko, but seemingly no one else, especially not Marco. How much does Marco’s underestimation of Isobel affect the outcome of the competition?
16. How does Isobel serve as a foil to Celia? Who, if anyone, fills that role for Marco?
17. Tsukiko is aware of Isobel’s “tempering of the circus” from the outset and when Isobel worries that it is having no effect, Tsukiko suggests: “perhaps it is controlling the chaos within more than the chaos without.” What, and whose, chaos is Tsukiko alluding to here?
18. Mr. Barris, Friedrick Thiessen, Mme. Padva, and even Bailey are aware that the circus has made a profound, inexplicable, change in their lives, but they each choose not to explore the depth of these changes. Friedrick Thiessen confirms that, “I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark.” Do you agree with this standpoint? What inherent dangers accompany a purposeful ignorance? What dangers present themselves when ignorance is not chosen? Is one choice better/safer than the other or are they equally fraught?
19. Celia tells Bailey that he is “not destined or chosen” to be the next proprietor of the circus. He is simply “in the right place at the right time…and care[s] enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.” In this situation, is that “enough?” Can the responsibility of maintaining the circus be trusted to just anyone, or unlike Celia suggests, is Bailey truly special?
20. At the closing of the novel, we are left to believe that the circus is still traveling—Bailey’s business card provides an email address as his contact information. How do you think the circus would fare over time? Would the circus need to evolve to suit each generation or is it distinctive enough to transcend time?
Barnes & Noble Exclusive Q&A
Q: Le Cirque des Rêves first appears in the late 1800's. What drew you to this time period in particular?
I've always been fond of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I love the style of top hats and corsets and bustles, the dancing gaslight shadows on cobblestone streets. Steam trains and spiritualism and stage magicians. And of course, it is a very circus-appropriate point in history, being Greatest Show on Earth Barnum-era and all.
Q: How much research did you do into circus history and the Victorian era while writing the book?
There was very little historical research involved. I wanted to have a Victorian flavor but I didn't want to tie the circus too tightly to the time period or make it a true historical novel. I tried to avoid being anachronistic but at its heart it is a fantastical world grounded in a real time period. Almost everything is pure imagination, using the historical context as a jumping-off point.
Though I was delighted to discover after the fact that Barnum and Bailey's circus did at one point have acrobats who performed in evening wear.
Q: The circus is gorgeously imagined, and much of the drama begins with the fact that it is entirely dressed in black and white. Why this palette?
I love black and white, in both photography and film. I think part of the appeal is how it breaks all the visual information down into light and shadow, leaving only brightest whites and darkest darks and all those nuanced shades of grey. The combination also suggests the styling of a chessboard, which worked well for the game aspect of the story. And black and white makes for properly formal evening attire, as well, fitting for a nocturnal circus. I always wanted the circus to have an elegance to it, and the restrained color scheme worked well for that.
Q: The Rêveurs and their red scarves provide the only splash of color in the circus with the exception of the twins, Poppet and Widget, who have red hair. These were clearly deliberate choices. Why? And what significance does the color red have for you?
I love the way red seems more vibrant when isolated as a color, against a background of black and white. I think of all colors, red is the most striking in that context. It's also a very passionate color, associated with love and romance and danger. If there was going to be one color, full of life and passion splashed across the black and white canvas of the circus, it simply had to be a rich, blood-red crimson.
It also worked well with other visual elements involved in the story, from playing cards emblazoned with hearts to the rose given to the Paramour.
Q: Which is your favorite tent at Le Cirque des Rêves and why?
My favorite is the Labyrinth, both because I think it is the tent I would most like to explore myself with its playing card-wallpapered walls and rooms full of feathers, and because of its meaning and symbolism within the story. So much of the novel is about collaboration and I think the Labyrinth epitomizes that.
Q: If you could create just one more tent what would it hold?
There are a few more tents that did not make it into the book, though if I could create an entirely new tent I think it would be something dark, since there are several light tents already. Perhaps with a bit of a puzzle to it to find the way through, locks and keys discovered by touch rather than sight. The tent-designing process usually takes quite some time, so that's the best I can do at the moment. May have to ponder that a bit more, though, just to see what comes of it.
Q: Which character was the most fun for you to write? Who was the most difficult? And who was the hardest to leave behind when you finished the manuscript?
I don't know if I can pick a most fun character, it's almost too much like choosing a favorite. The twins were wonderful to write because they play so well off of each other as a pair. Hector was also great fun; he has some of my very favorite lines.
Celia was the most difficult. She was also, I might add, the last character to be created. I went through several revisions before realizing that THE NIGHT CIRCUS was actually her story. At this point she's probably the character I feel closest to, but she did take the longest to figure out.
And I can't say I miss any one of my characters more than others because they are all still very much alive and well in my mind. But if I had to say whom I'd most want to go back and visit, just to sit with for a while to see how they were doing, it would have to be Chandresh. It is hard to not be spending so much time in la maison Lefèvre anymore. Q: THE NIGHT CIRCUS could be described in any number of ways—as romance, fantasy, literary fiction. When you were writing did you envision it as belonging to one or any number of these genres or does it transcend genre in your mind?
I had no idea what genre it was during the actual writing. Actually, for a while there, I wasn't entirely convinced it was even a novel. But when I first had to put a genre label on it, I tended to go with fantasy or literary fantasy, mostly because I thought it had too much magic to be magical realism. I don't know if I could say confidently that it transcends genre, but it certainly is its own creature. A writer friend of mine likes to refer to it as a monochromantasy.
Q: Do you read a lot of genre fiction or is your taste more eclectic? Who are some of your favorite writers and how (if at all) might they have inspired you when you were writing THE NIGHT CIRCUS?
My reading taste is very eclectic, though I do love genre fiction and books with genre elements. Some of my favorite writers include Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Angela Carter, Tom Robbins and Douglas Adams. I'm very fond of Shakespeare and I've recently developed a rather ardent literary crush on Dashiell Hammett.
I think almost every author I read influences the way I write in one way or another, but THE NIGHT CIRCUS definitely has flavors drawn from Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl, among others. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, which is one of my very favorite books, had an influence on the vignette-style format.
Q: THE NIGHT CIRCUS is so visually arresting that your editor described it as akin to "reading in 3-D." Can you talk a little bit about how your work as an artist informs your writing and how your writing may (or may not) inform your artwork?
I usually simplify the matter by saying I write what I can't paint and paint what I can't write. I'm a very visual person so for me writing starts with translating images in my head into words. I consider colors and textures and shapes along with dialogue and pacing when I write. And I have to be able to picture everything in detail before I can get it down on paper.
Art-wise I like to think of all my paintings as stories, as I think all art is storytelling in one way or another. Sometimes references to my writing turn up in my art, particularly in the tarot deck I was painting while working on THE NIGHT CIRCUS. I'm actually still not certain which version of The Hanged Man came first, the painting version or the one in the acrobat tent.
Q: What's next for Celia and Marco? For Bailey, Poppet and Widget? And most importantly, for you?
Celia and Marco are rather private people so I don't think they'd tell and I wouldn't dare pry. I'm sure Bailey and Poppet and Widget are full of ideas and getting involved in adventures and possibly shenanigans.
As for me, I'm working on a new novel that is not yet novel-shaped, exploring a new world and trying to figure out its secrets.