Within a few pages, I found out. This book is MAGICAL. The publisher's blurb doesn't really do the plot justice. Here's a modified one: There are two illusionists, chosen at a young age to be bound to one another in a contest that will span their lives until one wins. They have been given no rules, other than that they must perform in some way. They have no idea how one wins, or what one must do to win. Their sponsors in the contest create the circus as the arena for their players. One will travel with it, the other will not. Their story is interspersed with the perspectives of several other characters within or affiliated with the circus, all of whom enrich the plot and provide a deeper look at the workings of the circus and those it touches.
I love the structure of this book. Too often a book with split narratives lingers too long on one or another of the characters, to the point that the reader forgets the other tale being told. Not with "The Night Circus". Most chapters are less than 5 pages long. Any character whose story you long to continue will return again soon. There are no boring narratives. Each is carefully constructed to yield more detail or nuance to the contest, the circus, or the sinister dealings of the competition sponsors. There are many two-page intervals designed to lead the reader through a tent or aspect of the carnival as if the reader were a patron on a tour.
The prose is beautiful - not too verbose, not too simplistic. Morgenstern has the rare ability to describe her fantastical imaginings in a way that is easily accessible. Reading "The Night Circus", I felt like I could see the contents of the tents, feel the fluffiness of the cloud maze, smell the caramel wafting in the air, gaze into the pool of tears, smell the scents in the table of jars. The author makes her creation real. She does so so well that I think the film will be a disappointment - no production company could make real the fantastical things Morgenstern makes me picture in my head.
The romance is gentle and slow-burning. There are no bodice-ripper sex scenes, no overwrought proclamations of undying passion. The romance between the two illusionists is a motivator of events, not the event itself. By sparing us the gory details, the author creates a fairy-tale atmosphere for her love story, a theme alluded to by several of the characters throughout the novel. This is a story about stories. Each character is equal parts vague and filled in. The reader never feels as if a character is fully revealed, but each has a magical quality nonetheless...like fairy tale characters. Morgenstern skillfully translates fantastical, fairy tale elements into a world where fairy tales are unexpected, and dull reality has taken hold (the book begins in the late 19th century in post-industrialized England where the population has seen magic disappear in a haze of coal burning factories and speeding locomotives - magic is now whatever we can mechanize in the name of progress). The author incorporates the 'seen it all' attitude of the people into her narrative - the people are mesmerized by a combination of magic and mechanics, illusions designed for their world. And yet the novel never devolves in 'steampunk' silliness. There is an air of timelessness that pervades every description, so that the circus can move from era to era untouched by the specifics of that time.
The novel approaches what could conventionally be called its climax about 40 pages from the end. But Morgenstern has created so many characters, so many different narratives to care about, that the resolution of the illusionists' contest has become simply one of many stories. I was grateful for the remaining 40 pages to tie together the other narratives intertwined with the illusionists' story. This was altogether a beautiful novel, and I was sad to see it end. Like the rêveurs, I wanted to travel along with the circus for awhile longer.