The Night Circus: An Example Where World Building Works

The circus arrives without warning.

So begins Erin Morgenstern’s book The Night CircusIt’s a short, simple line, but I was intrigued.

Well that, and we know I have a soft spot (read: scar) for circuses.  😉

The Night Circus is the story of two illusionists who must compete to the death inside an arena of circus tents. But neither of them knows that. All they know is that they’ve been raised to perfect their skills for a competition they know nothing about, and that they’re falling madly in love with each other.

The book can be classified as magical realism, which is a growing genre trend that involves magic, but in a way where it is unmentionable. To clarify, for example with this story, both of the main characters have the ability to create things and distort reality with their illusions, but it’s never said outright that they are magic. The setting is considered normal world. And it’s believable.

I did an exercise at the writers conference I just attended for a class on setting. We took the idea of ‘home’ and wrote a scene that was detailed both in the senses and feelings. The activity was captivating. Everyone who attended the class was talking about it the whole weekend, because as we shared examples the scenes were so varied yet we each created a picture of a place and an emotion that emanated there. Where Morgenstern succeeds in this novel is that the world of the circus is very astutely described.

I have a confession. Place has never drawn me into a book. When I read Wuthering Heights, I skimmed over the moors. When I read The Thorn Birds, I flipped the pages right past Drogheda. But the Night Circus?

I wanted to know more.

Amazing fan art created by deviantART’s viveie, featured in the Huffington Post’s Book Club discussion

My Favorite Setting Stand Outs in The Night Circus:

  • Colors – Everything in the circus is decorated in black and white. The tents, the walls, the costumes. They are only ever black and white. So, when you have a scene where a character very deliberately changes her gown from emerald green to black to green again – the visual becomes more intense. The color stands out a little brighter. The “Revers” (meaning ‘dreamers’, AKA: circus folk) all wear red scarves so they know one another. In a crowd of black and white, the red pops.
  • Clocks – A fascinating side character is a clock maker who works closely with Celia, the female illusionist. The main clock over the circus tent is described as transforming from day to night as the hours pass with dancing scenes floating by like the most elaborately created cuckoo clock your imagination could describe.
  • Circus Tents – Of course the circus itself is described in great detail. There are rooms of mirrors in which you only see yourself, but when glancing over your shoulder, there is a crowd behind you. Another room is all white – floors, walls, and ceiling – and it snows there, but there is a great bonfire inside.

If you haven’t read The Night Circus, I highly recommend it.
Its world and its stor
y are rich. A very good read indeed.

Have you read it? What did you think?
What’s your favorite book that highlights a place – fictional or not?


18 responses

  1. I think, for me, the setting is only important if the author describes it in such a way that it draws me in. I’m very character oriented, but I can see where the setting, if done well, can be intriguing.

    1. I would agree with that. Which is probably why in fantasy or sci-fi, it’s more important to visualize that world if there’s something out of the ordinary about it. That’s why I really liked The Nigh Circus – it was normal world, and yet, it wasn’t.

  2. I actually have Night Circus on my TBR list. I may have to move it up a little higher after reading what you have to say about the book.

    1. It was in pile for 2 years before I got to it, and not for lack of wanting to read it. Sooo happy I have now. It was wonderful! Enjoy when you get to it!

  3. Favorite book that highlights a place? Gotta be Lord of the Rings. The way Tolkien so imaginatively and painstakingly fleshed out Middle Earth is incredible. I’m also a big fan of Jack London and enjoyed the settings in both Call of the Wild and White Fang. They were crucial to the stories.

    1. Oh yah, I don’t think anyone could beat Tolkien.

      I’ve never read the other two. Are they better than Gary Paulson’s The Hatchet? I HATED reading the Hatchet. How can so much bad stuff happen to ONE KID? LOL

      1. Depends if you like sled dogs, wolves, the Gold Rush and Alaska. If yes, you’ll love these books! London doesn’t get the same recognition as some of his contemporaries, and that’s a damn shame.

        1. Well I love the movie White Fang. I mean Ethan Hawke, HELLOOOO! LOL Did you know he’s a writer now? I think that’s fascinating.

          If you and Tara want a super creepy movie night, watch Sinister. Terrified for weeks.

          1. I did know that. And he’s supposed to be pretty good. I’ve always enjoyed his movies (Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, Reality Bites, etc.).

            1. YES!!!! I love those. Especially Reality Bites. That movie is epic.

  4. karenmcfarland | Reply

    Isn’t it fun to see how differently we are attracted to things? I find that fascinating. You did a beautiful job Jess in how you described the special features of this book. I can appreciate how vivid colors would be within the backdrop of black and white.

    Now with me, I love it when a book takes me to another place. I love getting into the settings, especially if it’s a place in history or somewhere I’d like to travel to. I just finished a book call “Five Days in Skye” which takes place in Scotland. One of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. It was a great example of good writing in a first novel. And I was sucked right in with the first line too. “At least they couldn’t fire her.” I know. I wanted to find out why.

    Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll have to add this to the list. That’s growing longer by the day. lol. 🙂

    1. Um, we’re writers, I’d find it strange if your list wasn’t getting longer by the day. Ha!

      I agree with you about history. My book club read a lot of war books last year and while the setting may not have struck me specifically, the context of the times sure did. And after reading several books, it was fascinating to piece the stories together and spatially know what was happening where simultaneously.

  5. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m dying to. I thought the books in the Harry Potter series did a fantastic job of bringing out setting well. (Not the most original answer, but very true nonetheless.) I just wanted to stay in that world and learn more about it. I loved when what they were learning in class was described and I wished I could sit down at the feasts and partake.

    1. Yes that’s another great example of where world building really enriched the story! I love reading the Harry Potter books too. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to Hogwarts?

  6. […] walk among us; they just happen to be disguised as humans. Today I am grateful for K.B. Owen, Jess Witkins, Rishi Hein & Blanche […]

  7. Great post excellent review! Have to say, like you, love anything and everything related to the Circus. We also just so happen to love magical realism! This read sounds like it would keep the pages turning!! Adding to our must read list & sharing the post now!! 😉

    1. Now that I know what magical realism is, I will have to check more out. Loved this book!

      Did you read Water for Elephants? Love that one too.

      And American Sideshow is on my to read list.

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