“The Night Circus” is the story of two young magicians, Marco and Celia, and their magical contest. The contest has no apparent end and its goals and rules are unclear. The contestants are both bound to it for life: they cannot give up, nor apparently win or lose. They just keep competing. The tragedy of it all only dawns on us slowly.

The arena for the contest is the circus from the book’s title. It has mostly non-magic performers, but Celia and Marco start adding magical elements to it. Not just the obvious illusionist’s show that is truly magical, but all sorts of other acts that are magical in the sense of being weird and wonderful. A garden of ice; a carousel where the animals are partly alive; a hall of mirrors where the reflections are not quite the mirror image of that which they reflect.

Marco’s and Celia’s powers complement each other. They build the circus together, while still always being aware that they are competing.

As a reader, you can see the love affair between the two from miles away, but they themselves don’t, and it takes years for them to cover those miles. (What a romantic, sentimental concept of love, to have the lovers kept apart and longing forever.)

The circus is beautiful and mysterious, and makes you wish you could live in that world only so I could visit it. In the book, the circus gains fans whose whole life revolves around visits to the travelling circus. But I never feel that I can really picture it – it remains just a little bit vague, like a dream.

The world is apparently flawless, full of lovable, charming characters. They have parties with excellent food; they perform in beautiful circus acts. Magic appears to always succeed. There are no failures and no mistakes. Nobody is ever in a bad mood, everyone at the circus always gets along. All is dreamlike perfection.

We experience all of this through short glimpses and the occasional set piece. The story jumps back and forth in time, which is occasionally confusing, but in keeping with the dreaminess of it all, the slight confusion didn’t bother me much because I found that the exact order of events mostly didn’t matter much.

It takes a patient reader to savour the wonders of the circus and the book. The pacing is slow all the way, which goes with the dreaminess but has its downsides. While I enjoyed every page I read, I never got that feeling that I can’t put the book down and just have to read one more page, so it took me a while to finish. It could have done with more variation in tone and pace.

Only at the very end does the intricate magical balancing act of the circus start to teeter. I was almost hoping for it to come crashing down in fire and flames, but it doesn’t. Ending such a story is hard, but Morgenstern manages it well – although again she doesn’t quite succeed in getting the pacing right, making it dreamy instead of dramatic.

I got this book as a Christmas gift from Ingrid. It was a great choice. I do wonder how she picked it.