Book Reviews

Review: The Night Circus – March 2013

the night circusThe circus arrives without warning.

This is how The Night Circus begins, and this is how it ends. From Amazon:

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 both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

The novel is, at first, a series of vignettes, introducing character after character. It also spans several decades, and jumps back and forth to an almost dizzying effect – much like the circus itself.

I loved this book. It set out to tell a fantastical fairy tale, and it accomplished that in the most charming and vivid way. The imagery was everything I had hoped for when I picked it up at Barnes and Noble. I would recommend this book to just about anyone.

That said, the novel is not without faults. Because it is chalk-full of colorful characters, and because it jumps through time in nearly every chapter, the dizzying effect makes it difficult to narrow down an emotional attachment to anyone in particular. Though the two protagonists are obvious from the start, Morgenstern does not spend a terrible amount of time crafting their emotions or motivations. Instead, she focuses on their technical training and their execution of beautiful illusions. She focuses on the circus itself and it’s dreamlike mysteries. She focuses on those just outside the circus who are affected by its wonders. So when the two magicians finally fall in love, though it feels natural, it also feels a little empty and unearned.

This was almost a perfect book for me: it was an historical fiction, it contained fantasy and magic, it was beautifully told with style, and it was a fairly easy read, though not depthless or bland. I felt like there was just one more element, something bubbling under the surface that was never revealed. It fell just short. Short of what, I can’t say. But honestly, that undefined lacking is only a minor concern. This novel transported me, and that’s the best compliment I can give to any story. 4 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch – January 2013

the hangmans daughterGreat, great read. The book takes place in 1659 Bavaria, several years after the Thirty Year War and about 70 years after the last big push for a witch hunt. After a great vignette of a prologue, the novel opens with the murder of a boy. Witchcraft is suspected and the local midwife is arrested. Jakob Kuisl, the whipsmart town executioner with a heart of gold, believes the midwife is innocent, and thus the murder mystery unfolds as he tries to find the real murderer.

Like I said, this was a really fantastic read. Well written, great characters, fast paced, and mostly historically honest (though the author, a descendant of the real Kuisl line, admits he embellished in some areas for the sake of fiction). There are enough clues, potential villains, and red-herrings to keep you guessing at every turn. I highly recommend it. 4.5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Witch’s Daughter, by Paula Brackston – January 2013

the witchs daughterFirstly, here’s the Amazon.com summary:

My name is Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, and my age is three hundred and eighty-four years. If you will listen, I will tell you a tale of witches.  A tale of magic and love and loss.  A story of how simple ignorance breeds fear, and how deadly that fear can be.  Let me tell you what it means to be a witch.

In the spring of 1628, the Witchfinder of Wessex finds himself a true Witch. As Bess Hawksmith watches her mother swing from the Hanging Tree she knows that only one man can save her from the same fate: the Warlock Gideon Masters. Secluded at his cottage, Gideon instructs Bess, awakening formidable powers she didn’t know she had. She couldn’t have foreseen that even now, centuries later, he would be hunting her across time, determined to claim payment for saving her life.

In present-day England, Elizabeth has built a quiet life. She has spent the centuries in solitude, moving from place to place, surviving plagues, wars, and the heartbreak that comes with immortality. Her loneliness comes to an abrupt end when she is befriended by a teenage girl called Tegan. Against her better judgment, Elizabeth opens her heart to Tegan and begins teaching her the ways of the Hedge Witch. But will she be able to stand against Gideon—who will stop at nothing to reclaim her soul—in order to protect the girl who has become the daughter she never had?

This book was equal parts fun and frustrating. I downloaded it to my Kindle in the hopes that it would be an entertaining historical fiction with a slight mystical element to it – and part of it was. But the novel as a whole felt like it was written by two different authors.

The book spans 370 years, from the seventeenth century through modern(ish) day, stopping in the 1880s and WWI. These historical pieces were well written and fully fleshed out. They had mystery and intrigue, along with a well-defined tone and setting. The novel is weakest when it comes to present day Elizabeth. The tone shifts from historical thriller to a muddled New Age “Practical Magic” feel, and it’s quite jarring. I felt myself rushing through the modern segments to get back to the meatier period pieces.

But the tonal shifts weren’t my biggest concern with the book. What irked me the most was the pacing of the action. Each time period ended with a sort of magical battle that was heart-breakingly anti-climatic. I’m with Bess for 50-100 pages, feeling her pain and loneliness, hating the Warlock Gideon Masters right along with her, and the climax would resolve the situation in about 3 pages, sometimes killing characters, sometimes not, but never giving me a pause to register what’s happening or feel any sort of emotional release. The resolution occurs and time shifts immediately back to present day.

Overall this would be an alright beach-read for someone looking for a book more complex than The Devil Wears Prada, but the next great American novel this is not.  3 Stars