I feel like everyone read this book about two years ago and raved about it. I actually bought it back then, but was afraid I would be the one person that didn't like it. Some of the reviews made me worry that maybe it wasn't my cup of tea, and then I started seeing reviews that were less excited about it, which made me feel like I was justified in holding off on reading it. As it turns out I shouldn't have been worried at all, and I'm so glad I found some of the book challenges I did this year that inspired me to finally read this since it meets requirements for three or four of them.
The main premise of the plot revolves around a challenge between two magicians and their opposing theories on the practice of magic. Rather than face each other, the two have been pitting apprentices and students against each other for an indeterminate time. It seems that quite some time has elapsed since the last challenge, but when one of them realizes he has a daughter, he decides to use her in the challenge, even when his opponent, Alexander, gives him a chance to bow out considering that the challenge only ends with death. Alexander quickly finds an orphan to teach, and thus Marco and Celia are set up as contestants in what will become a life long challenge (while neither of the older men is exactly admirable, I liked Alexander and his methods much more).
The challenge doesn't begin immediately as both men must train their chosen representatives first, but eventually, the venue is picked, and the challenge begins, showcasing the different things the two can do with their magic. The venue of course is "Le Cirque des Reves" or the Circus of Dreams, and Marco and Celia do not realize exactly what type of contest they are in for a long time - they only know they are competing and that they are not allowed to interfere with each other.
Interspersed with the story of Marco and Celia and their growing attraction to each other are stories about the circus and its visitors. Some of the short chapters describe attractions and how a visit might feel, while other chapters focus on some of the people involved with the circus, or the effect it has on its visitors. One prominent guest of the circus is Friedrick Thiessen, the man that designd the beautiful and playful clock that graces the entrance of the circus (after reading this novel, I totally want a clock designed by this man). As magical as the circus is, it is clear that there is also something darker going on and not everything is perfect. Obviously, the challenge itself is not going to lead to a happy ending, and the oddities surrounding the circus take their toll on some of the people closely associated with the circus without actually being part of the circus.
The descriptions of the circus are very enchanting, and the novel's success has very much to do with the details and the atmosphere it creates rather than the plot itself. There are so many little vignettes and different characters, all of which are quite enjoyable so that even though Marco and Celia are the main players, they are also just part of a large ensemble. In a way, it reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though that one was much more complex and dense novel. Still, it had that same type of feeling to it for me, though this one was a bit lighter and fluffier. I'm definitely curious to see what else Morgenstern has in store for her future novels.