As a young girl, Celia Bowen is delivered to the father she never knew, a world famous magician whose secret is that his show is genuine magic - not illusions. He teaches Celia to manipulate the world in the same way so that she can compete in a high-stakes game against Marco, an orphan similarly trained by her father's nemesis. The arena for this game is an elaborate, surreal circus. Neither Celia nor Marco knows the extent of the game, nor their opponent, until they have fallen in love with each other.
I am going to blow the mind of everyone who gave this book five stars. My biggest problem with it was how badly Erin Morgenstern broken the cardinal rule of creative writing: show, don't tell.
I will 100% agree that Morgenstern did an incredible job describing the wonder and magic of the circus. Her elaborate descriptions of magical tents and off-beat performers initially drew me in, though I worried about how long-winded and verbose some of her descriptions could be. Morgenstern's problem is that the plot and character development takes places mostly through dialogue and not action. Most of the significant plot twists were revealed by one character telling another, which took most of the suspense out of the story. I had the same problem with the character development. There was practically no exposition to give insight into these characters, no sense that they acted with reason beyond the need to make the story do what Morgenstern wanted. They didn't feel real.
And the love story? Please. Dear Ms. Morgenstern: I do not believe two characters are in love simply because they say they are.
They should act as though they are falling in love. Celia and Marco declare intense feelings for each other the first time they meet one another. The result is a juvenile, melodramatic, and inauthentic "romance" that I couldn't bring myself to care about. It's just like my friend's fourteen year old sister who declares her world-ending love for a different boy each week: "This one's different. It's real. I swear."
Similarly, it bothered me that the high-stakes battle unfolded in the form of Celia and Marco conjuring magical tents for each other...from afar. She did it from the center of the circus, where she was one of its main attractions, and he did it from London, where he worked as the assistant of one of the founders. I was expecting a dangerous, breathtaking game of one-upsmanship along the lines of the movie The Prestige
. I know that the distance between Celia and Marco was necessitated by Morgenstern's love story, but it hardly made the game feel Life-and-Death. There was no suspense, so urgency, and really no sense of competition at all. Celia and Marco kept being told that they had to be careful and they had to up their game and that the battle would be coming to a head soon....but nothing ever seemed to come of these warnings. I never once worried that one of them was in danger.
I would give Morgenstern four stars for imagination and creativity, but her execution falls flat. If you want to read this solely for the descriptions of the circus and the magic, I'm sure you will enjoy this book a lot. If you're looking for a well-told story, look elsewhere.