Book of the Month: Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

night-circusIt can be dangerous picking books from a list and hoping that they live up to the hype. The Night Circus has appeared over and over on book lover Pinterest boards so I decided it would be worth seeing what the big deal was about. I’m glad to say that this is a book that delivers.

Not too long ago I wrote a post discussing what Magical Realism meant. The Night Circus is a terrific example of magical realism. The story takes place in an ahistorical Victorian London and follows the lives of two young magical proteges. These magicians can perform actual magic and not just feats of illusion. These proteges and their masters create the Night Circus – Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams. A reality defying collection of curiosities that is only open from dusk to dawn.

The circus itself is surreal enough to make for intriguing reading. Among the expected acrobatic acts and contortionists there are tents that are full of the impossible. One is a garden created entirely from ice. Another, a cloud maze where you can fall from incredible heights without the fear of being hurt.

The story weaves it’s way through the lives of two magical proteges. Through the years, Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H. have been locked in a rivalry to prove who is the better, more powerful magician.  Their students, Celia Bowen and Marcos Alisdair are the pawns in a dangerous competition in which they have been groomed their whole lives to play. Except, they are never given the rules of the competition. They must push to find what must be done and are never sure what the next step must be.

My review:

It’s not often when a book takes me by surprise. The Night Circus has an otherworldly quality that makes for perfect escapist reading. I was transported into this alternate world where magic is indeed real and palpable and filled with wonder. The story itself is fresh and full of ideas and creativity that haven’t been seen before, which is a feat in itself seeing how most stories I read are beaten dead from over use.

The best part of the book is the circus itself, the wonder and the thrills contained therein continually change and evolve to captivate and delight both reader and the characters that walk the pages.

I recommend this to anyone who likes magical realism, Cirque du Soleil, and surrealism. For those of you who like their fiction to keep both feel solidly on the ground, this might be a touch cerebral for you.

Like book reviews? Here are a few of my others:

Writer Wednesday: Magical Realism

Welcome to writer Wednesday! Here we will tackle topics of interest to fellow writers and hopefully be interesting to readers of fiction. These posts used to be written over at My Literary Quest but now will be featured here and reblogged there.

Today we will discuss the literary genre, magical realism.

paul-bond-magic-realism

Although it feels like the term “Magical Realism” is fairly new, it has actually been around since the 1920s. As a fantasy writer myself, I wanted to explore this term to better understand it.

The idea of magical realism sprang up first from a German art critic, Franz Roh, who used it to describe art that pushed beyond the surreal, creating intriguing, thought provoking works. This art was known for it’s photographic clarity and focused on the magical nature of the real world.

This art inspired writers to find the same feeling in their works. They aimed to capture the fantastic, mysterious nature of reality. These writers carried these ideas over to Hispanic America where it was embraced and began to evolve. The term “marvelous realism” was born and described works that presented a realistic and pragmatic view of reality that includes an acceptance of the existence of magic and superstition. This is closer to how we define magical realism today.

The 1955 essay by critic Angel Flores titled, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” combines both aspects of magic realism and marvelous realism and brought the genre back to life after it had gone out of style. This increase of interest led to the term magical realism being applied to a new type of literature known for a matter-of-fact portrayal of magical events.

Today, magical realism is alive and well and is probably in more places than you’ve imagined. Popular novels that are considered to fall in this category include: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

There are several characteristics that magical realism novels include to a certain extent. These include:

  • Fantastical elements
  • Real-world setting
  • Authorial reticence, meaning that the author withholds explanations about fantastic events, treating them as if nothing extraordinary has taken place.
  • Plentitude, referring to an almost Baroque feel where there is an abundance of disorienting details.
  • Hybridity, where plot lines evolve along multiple planes of reality.
  • Metafiction, where the book acknowledges the existence of its reader.
  • Heightened awareness of mystery, the story isn’t bound to the rules of conventional exposition and pushes for a heightened state of awareness of life’s hidden meanings.
  • Political critique. Due to its foothold in the real world, magical realism is better suited to criticize society, especially the elite.

Final question – is magical realism the same as fantasy?

Yes and no. It depends on how fantasy is defined. Fantasy that takes place on bizarre or alternate worlds is not magical realism. However, urban fantasy can be considered magical realism if the magical elements are known and accepted in the world. Most agreed that epic fantasy is not magical realism due to the universal existence of an alternate world.

That said – the famous Terry Prachett is quoted saying magical realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Although in my opinion, his writing largely embraces the chief tenet of magical realism where the most fantastic elements are taken as normal, or even mundane.

Gene Wolfe said, “magical realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.”

I say magical realism is different, largely because the overall feeling of the work is distinct. Fantasy puts magic on a pedestal and glorifies it, magical realism shoves it under the rug as it explores other aspects of life.

What do you think? Do you write magical realism? Let’s talk about it in the comments!