The Night Circus (2011) is extremely well written, and if all it took to make a great novel was to have a creative mind and a wonderful ability to describe the scenery, this would be at the top of my list. Unfortunately for Morgenstern, a great novel also needs well-formed characters, an interesting plot, and a connection with the reader. The Night Circus just didn't come through for me on those fronts.
In the late 1800s, two powerful magicians get together to start a game. They will take two children, teach them their secrets, and then pit them against each other in a test of their different forms of magic. One of the magicians puts his six-year-old daughter Celia into the competition. The other magician gets Marco, a young boy from an orphanage to train as his contestant.
A dozen or so years later, an artistic promoter in London comes up with the idea of a wonder-filled circus. He finds the best designers, performers, and creative minds and creates the Night Circus. It is only open at night. It appears in different locations around the world without announcement. Its performers are all silent. And all the sets and costumes are only in the colors black and white.
Celia is hired as a magician in the circus, and Marco is the assistant of the circus owner. The circus is their playing field.
And so it goes. Descriptions of the circus. Some romantic tension. More descriptions. Some additional characters. Rooms, tents, tricks, illusions. Description description description. All the description is really good, mind you, it just leaves room for little else.
I would be remiss in not also praising Morgenstern's sense of structure. The book moves back and forth between a chronological telling of the events starting in the 1870s and a second storyline beginning at the turn of the century. The "past" section moves more quickly than the "present" section and eventually catches up to and merges with it.
Pulling off a structure like that (much like pulling off a precisely designed circus) takes a lot of control, and control is what Morgenstern has in spades. For a book to really work as more than just a meditation on style, though, an author, or at least her characters, sometimes needs to lose a little bit of that control. Here's hoping that Morgenstern lets loose in her next novel and combines some of her wonderful descriptive skills with a little more feeling.