This is a lovely, whimsical book. I am also sort of at a loss as to what to write about it. Normally, there's some issue, or some literary trick, or idea, that I latch on to, and am dying to write about in a review, for better or worse. This time, not so much. From a couple of days distance, this book feels remarkably like a meringue. Entertaining and sweet going down, but then it disappears in a wisp of foam.
Which is a little strange, given the subject matter about a magical duel between two children dedicated to the battle before they could possibly have understood what was going on in their lives. As they grow, the battle commences, and the battleground is an amazing circus. But is it a battleground after all? Collaboration ensues, and meeting, and falling head over heels in love. In the middle of a contest that cannot be stopped.
There is none of the narrative push that such a description might make likely. No, instead this book floats along on a cloud of whimsy that is truly enchanting to read. And the circus itself - I want to go there! Right near the end of the book, it delves into tension, and that works very well. But it takes a while to get there. This book strives for the effortlessness, and only at the end offers its readers the tension of a high-wire act.
Two magicians, as in, practitioners of real-life magic, disagree on how visible magic should be, and how best to practice. In order to settle this rather petty grudge match, and rather than fighting it out themselves, they sacrifice young people to their vanity by binding them to contests, and apparently have been doing so for possibly centuries. It's sort of glossed over how much of monsters this makes them, but, you know, playing with people, particularly children, to settle a bet? Eep.
Celia Bowen takes a job as an illusionist with the newly founded Cirque des Reves. She does not know who her opponent it. Marco is the almost invisible aide to the man behind the circus, changing things from a distance. The two strive to create new tents in the circus that move the competition forward, without ever really knowing why, or what the competition means.
I wonder if the lack of knowledge undercuts some interesting tension, although perhaps that kind of drama was not what Morgenstern was going for here.
Here's the thing, though. There are other characters I like far better and am far more interested in than the two lovers/competitors. The twins, Widget and Poppet, are far more vivid in my memory, and I cared more about them than I did some of the other plotline. Their fight to save the only home they've ever known is more compelling.
In the end, I enjoyed the writing style, and lovely, whimsical world Morgenstern created. Little about the book gave me food for thought for later, but as a debut, this is enchanting.