The Night Circus is a 2011 fantasy novel by Erin Morgenstern. It was originally written for the annual writing competition NaNoWriMo.
The Night Circus is a phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an ahistorical Victorian London in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams, features such wonders and „ethereal enigmas“ as a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor. The circus has no set schedule, appearing without warning and leaving without notice; they travel in a train disguised as an ordinary coal transport. A network of devoted fans styling themselves „rêveurs“ („dreamers“) develops around the circus; they identify to each other by adding a splash of red to garb that otherwise matches the characteristic black and white of the circus tents. The magical nature of the circus is occluded under the guise of legerdemain; the illusionist truly transforms her jacket into a raven and the fortune teller truly reads the uncertain future, and both are applauded for their ingenuity.
The circus serves a darker purpose beyond entertainment and profit. The magicians Prospero the Enchanter and the enigmatic Mr. A.H— groom their young proteges, Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair, to proxy their rivalry with the exhibits as a stage. Prospero teaches his daughter to hone her innate talents by holding ever larger and more complex magical workings in her mind. Celia takes her position on the game board as the illusionist who makes true transformations, adding tents and maintaining wondrous aspects from the inside. Mr. A.H— trains his orphan ward with books in the ways of glyphs and sympathetic magic and illusory worlds that exist only in the mind of the beholder. Marco takes a position as an assistant to the producer of the circus; he works from the outside in, connected to the circus via a magical link to the central bonfire, but not a part of it. The two beguile the circus goers and each other with nightly wonders, soon falling in love despite being magically bound to a deadly competition with rules neither understands.
As the competition continues, straining both competitors with no sign of a conclusion nor of how a winner will be determined, others connected with the circus start to notice strange events connected to it; the blueprints disappear from the designers‘ offices, and the performers appear bound to the circus and can never fail, leave permanently, have accidents, or even age. Two children – Poppet and Widget – born to a performer on opening night were the last members of the circus to be born, and have developed magical powers. The producer of the circus has his memories erased and one of the initial investors is murdered by Mr. A.H- when they begin to discover the underlying truth. When the building tensions between Prospero and A.H- and the jealousy of Marco’s ex-girlfriend spurned for Celia result in an innocent „rêveur“ being accidentally stabbed in a circus tent, Celia begins to search for a way to end the game as quickly as possible while preserving the circus and those involved with it.
Celia learns from Prospero that the game must continue until one of the participants is unable to go on, which usually means their death; and that the circus contortionist, Tsukiko, is a magician herself and the winner of a previous contest in which her opponent committed suicide. After Celia and Marco’s negotiations with their mentors fail, Tsukiko declares that she can no longer stand the contest continuing and plans to magically kill Marco to end the contest, believing him to be less important than Celia because he was not part of the circus. At the last moment, Celia rushes to save him, resulting in both of them being ripped from reality and becoming incorporeal spirits bound to the circus. With its magical keystones removed, the central bonfire goes out and the circus environment begins to break down; Celia and Marco preserve the circus by magically rebinding Poppet, Widget, and their new friend – a keen circusgoer called Bailey – back to the circus, relighting the fire and bringing back the spirit of the circus .
With Celia and Marco both existing only as ghosts, unable to compete but content to haunt the circus together forever, the contest is declared complete via stalemate with no winner. Poppet and Widget negotiate the release of the remaining circus properties from the former producer and Mr. A.H-, and the book ends with the revelation that Poppet, Widget, Bailey and the circus still exist in the modern day, preserved for a century and more.
The book has been extensively promoted, often with mention of Harry Potter or Twilight, but also in comparison to Neil Gaiman, Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Ron Charles writing for The Washington Post compares Morgenstern’s imagery to Steven Millhauser’s, albeit with „more playful and more dramatic surrealism“. Olivia Laing writing for The Observer compares the book to an „eminently intriguing cabinet of curiosities“ with an intricate but unmoored setting and colorful but clockwork characters. Laura Miller writing for Salon likewise praises the „aesthetic fantasia with all the trimmings“ but not the plot itself. Sarah Stegall writing for SFScope praises the vivid imagery, predicting that it should be nominated for literary awards. Richard Peabody writing for The Washington Independent Review of Books describes the narrative as nonlinear, with frequent shifts in points of view, tangential vignettes, and short almost cinematic chapters. Stacey D’Erasmo writing for The New York Times Book Review criticizes the lack of specificity of the imagery, describing the experience as being „continually told how magical the circus and its denizens are without ever being truly surprised, entranced or beguiled.“
The Night Circus was a candidate for the 2011 Guardian First Book Award. It won an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2012. The novel spent seven weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, reaching number two on the hardcover fiction list.
An audiobook version of The Night Circus is read by Jim Dale.
The UK publisher, Harvill Secker, contracted Failbetter Games, creators of Echo Bazaar!, to create a puzzle game to accompany the book. The site went live on September 1, 2011, two weeks before the book was published. The game has since been moved to the Storynexus site and modified to remove the aggressive social promotion that the original included.
The film and TV rights to The Night Circus were optioned by Summit Entertainment, and a film is being produced by David Heyman and Jeff Clifford under Heyday Films. Moira Buffini was hired in February 2012 to write the screenplay.