This is not a negative thing at all, especially since the writing had its moments of bliss. It's just a shame there was sooooo much of it. But more on that in a second.
Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Genre: An interesting mix of Fantasy and Historical Fiction
Premise: At the end of the 19th Century in Europe, two ancient "Wizards" agree to train apprentices with the intent of pitting them against each other. These apprentices, Celia Bowen and Marco H. try to outdo each other using a magical circus (Le Cirque des Rêves / the Night Circus) as a platform for their displays.
What didn't work for me:
The novel has about a hundred extra pages that it fills with description and unnecessary secondary plots.
If anything will be said about The Night Circus is that it is very descriptive. One of the things it tries to do is describe, in 2nd person point of view (you see this, you hear that, etc.), the act of walking into the circus and seeing the many things it has to offer. These sections are wisely separated from the narrative, but there are chunks of description that serve no purpose.
In particular, there is the description of a dinner at the home of this character named Chandresh, where the founding minds of the Night Circus first meet. The author establishes, in great detail, what these dinners are usually like (dishes, ambiance, drinks, deserts, etc.). Then, she goes into greater detail about what the dinner that night consists of (dishes, ambiance, drinks, deserts, conversations, etc.). It is a feast of information that hits all the senses, some of which appears again and again when the author describes dinners that this character hosts during other occasions.
Now, this is just my preference, but I DO NOT read books to marvel at the writing style. To me, it is like reading a poem for its plot. While the writing cleverness or beauty is always something that's enjoyable to find, it becomes annoying when excessive.
Aside from the orgy of description, the other reason the novel felt long is that there are too many unimportant character arcs to follow. The main focus of the plot is the competition between the two students, which develops into a romance (but you probably figured that out).
But M. Morgenstern also follows the story arcs of characters that add little to the plot, like the clock-maker, Herr Thiessen, who becomes so in love with the circus that he starts a sort of journal that influences others to share their experiences with the circus; they eventually become a fan group.
The other unnecessary story arc was the one dealing with Bailey and the twins born in the circus, Poppet and Widget. Given all the attention the author pays to Bailey, I expected his story to blend in with the overall story a bit smoother than it did. As it is, the author literally tells us that Bailey is there to end the story, "not destined or chosen" to do so; it is just a random way to end the novel's "Wizard" competition. Before even knowing that, I tended to dislike the chapters dealing with Bailey in general because they take place in the future (1900s). This is jarring early on while the main action takes place in the late 1800s.
And while the characters of Bailey, Poppet, and Widget are interesting, there are ways to have done this to not be such an inconvenience. Imagine if Wuthering Heights was written with chapters from the characters of Cathy 2 and Hareton being thrown in while the action with Heathcliff and Cathy 1 was still taking place. Morgenstern might have used Bronte's book as inspiration and it would have turned out more pleasant, though the addition of Bailey would still have been jarring.
What worked for me:
1) This is a magnificent Fantasy.
The two "Wizard" masters represent two very different ways of doing magic, which they pass on to the two protagonist students, Celia and Marco. The world building is kept subtle, but effective, giving The Night Circus a truly magical foundation to build on.
There is a choice an author makes when writing a Fantasy: 1) Explain the magic system to make it seem more believable / scientific; 2) Leave out most of the specific details of how the magic works to add mysticism or mystery. The differences between the two options is vast, as are the opinions about them.
Or they may be subtle. The two series that come to mind are Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Jordan delights in giving a magic system with rules, while Martin leaves them out, focusing on the political machinations of his characters.
Brandon Sanderson has written "laws" that describe similar things. In his first law he would call choice #1 "hard magic" versus #2's "soft magic." Of course, it helps to note that his laws are preferences that define his fiction. I'm partial to reading about magic that isn't spelled-out with specific rules; to enjoy a magic trick, I don't need to know how they do it.
But as authors we do have a very big imagination and with enough time we can create silly laws for just about anything. Hell, I can come up with a Law of Magic Systems: Any magic system in fiction, no matter how sophisticated, is based on bull-shit logic (magic isn't real!!!!!!).
Fortunately, Morgenstern doesn't overdo the magic in the book. There are enough details to let me know that she understood what was going on. There was never the dreaded the deus ex machina (with the magic at least). The problems in the book are ultimately solved by the characters, not by magic. The main characters must accept that magic, though wonderful and powerful, is not a tonic.
It is always a treat to see an imaginative mind's take on mysticism and the author of this book doesn't disappoint. Marco's magic and Celia's magic are polar opposites (almost), but as the story goes, the systems merge and become new. There is just enough detail to understand what is going on without the nuances of rules of magic.
I won't say it fills you with "a sense of wonder." It goes beyond that. At times it is haunting and dark, frightening. At other times it is surreal, venturing into the extreme ends of the weird. It doesn't just give you magic acts, it questions what magic is and how it is influenced by our cultural expectations, which is something that I'm trying to do with The Wizards.
2) The main characters are...likable.
I don't know how long it has been since I read a novel that had a main character I could root for. Celia and Marco are in a set of circumstances that are beyond their control; it is an especially nice touch to make them seem free. They are excellent characters that I wanted to succeed. The revelation about the nature of the game later on just made me root for them more. Yes, romance develops, but the author handles it without the explicit (and obligatory) "juicy" details found in trashy Romance novels.
Even with The Hunger Games (which I thoroughly enjoyed), I wasn't interested in Peeta Mellark surviving the games.
***I just realized that I haven't rooted for a main character in a fantasy/science fiction novel in a long time...Katniss was the last. How long ago was that?***
This is an important element in any novel. I think the reason I enjoyed the Harry Potter books so much was that Harry was such an easy character to follow. He wasn't some bad-ass hunter. He was just a kid trying to get along. The human element in the character of Harry Potter was enormous.
With Celia and Marco, there is a genuine frailty that is very human. Celia is never over the tragic death of her mother and the disappointment of her father, which color her personality. Marco is an orphan clinging to a cold, ancient wizard for a father. The only warmth they find is within each other. They are uniquely matched, chaos and order.
3) The circus is the protagonist of the novel.
Although there are too many secondary and tertiary story arcs in this novel, some of them help to define the circus as more than a setting. The author follows the lives of not just the magicians dueling, but also the characters affected by the duel; the carnies and the founding members of the circus. They are as trapped as the main characters and worse off because they have almost no understanding of what is going on. They notice they age much slower than they used to and that they are in a stagnated state of being (spiritually).
In particular, the lives of Chandresh (the brain behind the Night Circus) and the Burgess sisters are well done. Chandresh, who is an innovator and pioneer, must deal with a lack of ideas as a result of the binding spell that falls over the circus. Marco, one of the main characters, erases his memory whenever he gets too close to the truth.
Tara and Lainie Burgess are sisters who enhance the designs of others with their own flair. But the circus consumes them (I won't add a spoiler of how).
That the author gives an enormous amount of time to these side-characters shows that she meant for the novel to be decentralized. The end result is that the Night Circus is the protagonist of The Night Circus. This is well done, like a good binding spell.
The biggest compliment I can pay Morgenstern's The Night Circus is that I will visit it again in the future, along with Morgenstern's other fiction.
When the focus was on Celia and Marco, and those directly affected by the circus, the novel was great to read. At other times it dragged on with too much description that tried to give a first hand account of what it was describing; the author has to trust that the reader knows about these things, like caramel covered popcorn.
But, no novel is perfect.
And this is Morgenstern's debut novel.