The Night Circus

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
The circus arrives without warning.
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The Night Circus, opening lines

In 1886 a traveling circus became a sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, the circus is like something out of a dream. The Cirque des Reves is a circus like no other, it is the circus of dreams.

However, something strange is going on behind the scenes. Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. Alexander H-- have a game. Trained from a young age, their students Celia and Marco compete in a battle of imagination and will. The scene of their battle is the Cirque des Reves and the game affects the lives of the patrons and performers alike. The only catch to the game? The competitors don't know the rules, they don't know how to win or when they'll win, and they don't even know who their opponent is (at first). All they know is the intimate sense of familiarity they get from one another with each breath-taking addition to the circus that pushes the boundaries of reality.

It is a clever allegory for a number of heavy philsophical themes, each of which seamlessly blend in the narrative.

Published in fall of 2011, the Night Circus is Erin Morgenstern's debut novel. The novel also was adapted into a web game by Failbetter Games, the creators of Echo Bazaar.

Tropes used in The Night Circus include:
  • Abusive Parents: Hector Bowen.
    • Celia's unnamed mother is implied to be this. She called her "the devil's child" and is presumably the reason the mother committed suicide.
    • Mr. A H-- is a more mild example. He is certainly neglectful, and perhaps as emotionally abusive as Hector (if not as physically abusive).
  • Absurdly High Stakes Game: The Challenge. Doubles with Complete Monster since neither Mr. A. H-- nor Hector Bowen are gambling with their own lives, but rather the lives of their children.
  • All Part of the Show: Vast components of the circus that should be physically impossible are simply accepted as being extraordinary engineering, resourcefulness and showmanship.
  • Alternate History
  • Anachronic Order: Bailey's chapters are interspersed amongst the general narrative, despite being set towards the end. The climax of the novel is when the two narratives meet.
  • An Aesop: Where to begin?! The book is expertly laced with them.
    • Stories have power ('magic' as it is stated) is presented at the very end, a lesson most tropers probably appreciate.
    • The Challenge is inevitable. Both participants had no choice in starting it. Neither of them know the rules, and at the start, there is no discernable way to "win". Sound like Real Life to anyone else?
  • Art Initiates Life
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Lalaine Burgess, of the Burgess sisters, who are not strictly identical twins but fraternal sisters that people regard as twins.
  • Awful Truth: The Challenge ends when one competitor dies. Which sucks in itself, but is especially painful given Marco's and Celia's infatuation with one another.
    • And if Tsukiko's story means falling in love with your competitor is normal then this sad turn of events is tragically standard.
  • Big Name Fan: Friedeck Thiessen is an in story example.
  • Book Ends: "The circus arrives without warning. . ."
  • Broken Bird: Tsukiko.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Celia and Marco both escape the challenge... but are eternally bound to the circus as pseudo-ghosts and may or may not go insane from being immortal.
  • Boy Meets Girl: Isobel and Marco, before Marco meets Celia anyway.
  • Came Back Wrong: Hector Bowen.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Hector Bowen's failed experiment.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Bailey.
  • Circus Brat: the twins Poppet and Widget grow up in the circus. Their parents train big cats and they have their own act, with kittens.
  • Doing It for the Art: Chandresh, in-universe.
    • To clarify, the introduction of Chandresh is him throwing a knife at a review of one of his productions that describes it as "almost transcendent." He is positively furious at the word almost.

Clearly he must be doing something wrong. If his productions are merely almost transcendent, when the possibility of true transcendence exists somewhere nearby, waiting to be attained, then there is something else that must be done.

  • Driven to Suicide: The challenge is a contest to see which student breaks first and can only end when one of the challengers decides to end it themselves. Tsukiko's opponent in the last challenge ended it when she burned herself with her own magic.
    • Also, Celia is first delivered to her father after her mother kills herself. When Celia considers ending the challenge herself, she tells Marco that she was always more her mother's daughter.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Fainting Seer: Poppet, especially when Bailey comes into the picture.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: Hector's attempt at permanently dodging death results in him being trapped forever as an insubstantial ghost-thing. It's never quite explained.
  • Foreshadowing: This exchange.

Mr. A. H--: She has remarkable control for one so young, but such a temper is always an unfortunate variable. It can lead to impulsive behavior.
Hector: She'll either grow out of it or learn to control it. It's a minor issue.

  • Fortune Teller: Isobel. Celia pretends to do this in her youth as a way to make money. Poppet replaces Isobel at some point according to the second-person circus-description sections.
  • Geas: Celia and Marco are bound using rings. If they try to leave the field of play and mean it, they experience unendurable pain.

Celia: We do not feel the bars unless we press against them.

  • Hermetic Mage: Marco.
  • Ho Yay: Celia notices that Chanderesh is this for Marco.
    • This is perhaps because of Marco's 'enchantments', an effect he used to influence Chanderesh into hiring a person with little real credentials for the job - and his fake appearance.
    • Also Tsukiko and her former Challenger.
  • Hidden Depths: Many of the characters appear one dimensional at first, but reveal more of their personalities as the novel progresses.
  • Ironic Stage Name: Hector Bowen is the exact opposite of his stage name's namesake, Prospero the Magician. Whereas Prospero was was a loving father who willingly gave up his magic at the end of his story, Hector is both physically and emotionally abusive to Celia and is consumed by his magic.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Tsukiko is implied to be one.
  • Magical Realism: Is to magic what The Time Traveler's Wife is to Time Travel. It even has a plug by Audrey Niffenegger on the back.
  • Magitek: Most of the tents in the circus consist of magic charms overlaying simplistic clockwork toys.
    • The trope is invoked by Mr. Barris, the engineer, working in collaboration with the Circus' two magicians to create works that should be physically impossible, but by the very flambuoyant nature of the Circus such architechtural extravagance is accepted by the general public and it goes unnoticed.
  • Mad Magician's Beautiful Daughter: Celia to Hector
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Hector and Celia.
  • Magically-Binding Contract: At the end of the story, Bailey is bound to the circus by Marco's ring.
    • Not to mention Marco and Celia in The Challenge.
  • Mind Screw: Widget is the narrator, which makes perfect sense in-universe since his ability allows him to "read" people and their pasts. He has perfect knowledge of what happened, and relays it to Mr. A. H-- in the form of the book we, the audence, are reading! All the details of magic that are glossed over are a result of Widget being unable to comprehend it either.
  • Parlor Games: If Bailey hadn't picked Dare in his game of Truth or Dare with his friends/sister, well... the consequences would be substantial.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Herr Thiessen, whose death doubles as a potential Tear Jerker
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: Alexander.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Subverted in that Celia figures out a way for her and Marco to end the game and be together by duplicating the spell that caused her father to become insubstantial.
    • Tsukiko and her opponent count though.
  • Take a Third Option: Celia and Marco regarding The Challenge, though the author leaves it to us whether or not this will turn out for the better...
  • Telepathy: Generally all the magical characters have some bizarre perception of the world that is never fully explained, but it allows them to pick up on weird things like whether someone is using an alias. Widget's in particular is very accurate and powerful.
  • Think Twins: The Murray twins.
  • Training from Hell: This is how Celia is taught to refine and control her magic.
    • Specifically, her father repeatedly slashes her fingers open in order to force her to learn healing magic.
    • Not to mention he kills a bird right in front of her when she says she's uncomfortable trying to 'fix it'. Keep in mind Celia is maybe six years old when this happens.
  • The Unchosen One: Bailey.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: the twins were born on the night the circus opened.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Probably everyone.
  • A Wizard Did It: Many of the magical effects created by the two magicians are truly incredible, but the nuts and bolts workings of them are never explained or even really hinted at.
  • Weirdness Censor: How illusionists such as Celia and Hector are able to pass their magic off as tricks.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Hector Bowen. Mr. H-- also argues to Widget that someday Celia and Marco might regret what they did.
  • Woman Scorned: Isobel.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Averted, until Isobel decides to remove the "tempering" spell on the Circus

The game provides examples of: