Set at the beginning of the 20th century, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is, at its core, a star-crossed love story. Celia and Marco are two magician prodigies who are chosen by their parents to compete against one another in a contest of magical skill, which is to end with the death of one participant. Their stage is an enchanted big top called Le Cirque de Rêves, an entity that moves without warning and is open only at night.
When Celia and Marco meet and fall in love, the situation takes on a greater degree of gravity. It is one thing for a magician to dispose of a rival while in pursuit of a dynastic vainglory. It is quite another to cast the spell that will deliver your sworn love to a permanent end.
Morgenstern’s approach in describing these extraordinary circumstances is compelling, if occasionally wanting for psychological detail. Likeable as Celia and Marco are, their motivations feel confusing and indistinct: the proportion between their extreme passions and how little time they’ve spent together feels odd. Equally frustrating is the nature of the magic competition. While they outdo one another through the exotic manipulation of space and time (bringing a carousel of animals to life, for example), these gestures hardly seem capable of killing a fellow magician. And as Morgenstern provides no villains, it’s hard to understand for whom we are supposed to be rooting.