Whoohoo, late review! I'm afraid it won't be a coherent one, but we'll see.
This is one of those books of quiet popularity that I think I'll get around to reading, but never do. Then I got a rec from a friend on a writing forum (thanks, Whispeh!) and decided to go ahead and get it, even though it's pretty long and I had a lot on my literary plate.
I... really don't know how to summarize it. It's like The Looking Glass Wars and Heroes Of The Valley and other books, that take place over such a long period of time and have so much going on, it's pretty much impossible to summarize it at all. So I'm going to chicken out and grab Goodreads' snippet:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Okay, long snippet. Like I said, insanely difficult book to sum up in brief.
I just finished the book about two minutes ago - literally. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly my thoughts are on it, so if you'll pardon any rambling? Thank you.
First, the best and most beautiful thing about it: the atmosphere. Holy smokes. Atmosphere oozes out of the book like... oozey stuff. It's magical and stark and gorgeous and absolutely tantalizing. I want Le Cirque des Rêves to come to my backyard and stay. Forever. Because I'd live in the place. I'd be one of the reveurs, the circus enthusiasts who spring up about halfway through the book. And unlike fanatics in a lot of similar books (if there are similar books), you know exactly where the reveurs are coming from. I want the night circus, with the illusionist and the fortune-teller and the acrobats and the fire jugglers and the contortionist and - and twins with trained kittens, for goodness' sake!
Atmosphere is definitely the strong point.
I wasn't a great fan of many of the characters, but I'm pretty sure that was intentional. Marco is likable at first, but he developed an ambiguity that bothered me. Celia was always just... there. Chandresh was interesting but not likable, either. Tara and Lainie Burgess were cool, as was Madame Padva. The characters who caught my real attention, however, were Bailey, a young man who comes in later (through intriguing chapters set some years in the future), and Poppet and Widget, said kitten-training twins. I'm not sure if their being young teenagers did anything to endear them to me, but they seemed... nicer. More real.
On the subject of characters - the villains are perfect. Understated and beautifully drawn. Hector, or "Prospero," seems idiotic and ridiculous at first, and he actually stays that way, but over time, you get a sense of just how dangerous and downright creepy he is. Alexander, also known as Mr. A.H.-- or 'the man in gray,' was more ambiguous, managing to be at once even creepier than Hector and much, much nicer of a chap. I'm... actually still not sure if Alexander really deserves the title of villain. Antagonist might be better. Either way, he and Hector were awesome.
On a slightly less glowing note, the actual plot of The Night Circus falters a little, what with all the attention given to making the circus as beautiful as it can possibly be. There's not a whole lot of plot build-up - not much tension, not much action, just the choosing of Marco and Celia, their training by Alexander and Hector, respectively, the creation of the circus... time plodding along in the lives of everyone concerned. It's all very slow - beautifully felt, like cobwebs or calligraphy, but very, very slow. And, despite it's length, not a whole lot happens. Well, a lot happens; most of it is just minor stuff, little bricks building a great big castle.
Still, I think I can excuse the lack of plot, and the strange dangling storylines, and the rushed climax, and the rather disappointing last twenty pages. Getting to experience the circus, even vicariously, was more than enough reason to read the book. I probably won't read it again for a long, long time - it's exhausting - but it was still enjoyable.
So yes, I recommend the book very highly, if you're not afraid of rather psychedelic non-plots and really strange characters that you don't get too close to. People who like 'normal' novels probably won't like The Night Circus. But if you have a taste for something strange and different and deliciously written, then read this book.