i read this because i like books about circuses & i’d heard some pretty glowing reports about it. but i am kind of disappointed. it was a whole lot of flash & not a lot of substance. the basic plotline concerns a wager between two magicians or wizards or whatever the fuck they are supposed to be. they can perform actual magic & seem to have achieved some kind of immortality, or have at least managed to stave off death for a few centuries. every once in a while, they find themselves some proteges, which they pit against one another in an interminable battle royale to see whose education method works better. one magician teaches through practical applications, while the other prefers good old-fashioned book learnin’. the results are generally inconclusive. both players are pretty evenly matched, albeit with unique skill sets, & they keep at it until they just can’t take it anymore & one of them commits suicide. because that’s the only way to end the game. although it is unclear to me why they would want to bother ending the game? i mean, that was kind of an enormous plot hole. it’s not like they are using magic against each other & hurting each other. they’re just doing magic. why can’t they just do it indefinitely & live their lives? there’s something about how they are bonded to the game & can’t quit without suffering excruciating pain, but the game is pretty open-ended & doesn’t seem that onerous.
anyway, the practical magician’s protege this time is his daughter, the product of some kind of traveling wonder magician one-night stand or something. her mom has killed herself because she was never able to get over awesome magician dude, & sent her daughter to go live with him. she has natural magical abilities because of the genetic link, but he hones them with his teaching, which involves things like breaking her hands & making her magically heal them. i don’t know if this was supposed to be shocking? i mean, if it was just a regular dad breaking his regular kid’s hands, that would be child abuse, but these are magicians & she did always manage to heal herself, so…i don’t know. maybe the issue i’m having is just that the characters are all so stoic & one-dimensional that i didn’t really care if people were getting their hands broken.
book-learnin’ guy doesn’t have a secret love child, so he instead gets a protege from the local orphanage. this scene is EXACTLY 100% THE SAME AS the scene in harry potter & the half-blood prince where dumbledore goes to the orphanage to tell tom riddle he’s been accepted at hogwarts. book-learnin’ guy (alexander is his name) even magically sedates the orphanage matron to convince her to let his chosen student, marco, go with him. he then locks marco in a room for like fifteen years & has him learn magic out of books. i guess the theory is that if you understand the principles, you’ll be able to do the work, which was also dolores umbridge’s method of teaching defense against the dark arts, & we all see how that worked out.
i know it’s hard to write a new book about magic & magicians without people immediately making harry potter comparisons, but if that’s something you want to avoid, maybe don’t have your elderly wizard-y patron visit an orphanage & offer to teach magic to a talented youngster, you know? not that j.k. rowling invented the whole orphan protagonist thing, but she has sold an awful lot of books & her tropes are pretty fresh in the minds of a lot of people that are going to go ahead & read a literary novel about people doing magic.
so, fast-forward i don’t know how many years. like fifteen years, maybe? the wizard dudes pull some strings & convince a wealthy eccentric to start a traveling circus. marco is installed as the rich guy’s helpful assistant, & the magician daughter is hired on as the illusionist. no one except marco realizes that the illusions she produces are not just tricks. she travels around with the totally awesome weirdo circus that is decked out like stephanie from the sleepover friends series–black & white only, with the occasional splash of red in the scarves worn by the crazy obsessives that start following the circus like it’s a goddamn phish concert. is anyone else remembering the numerous scenes in geek love where people start following THAT traveling circus from town to town because they view the flipper baby dude as their guru? yeah. to say that this book is incredibly derivative is perhaps the understatement of the year. i’m surprised that the climax didn’t involve an elephant trampling the bad guy to death, a la water for elephants. but like water for elephants, there is an illicit love story, as marco & daughter lady, celia, fall in love with each other. but they cannot be together because of the contest.
um…why can’t they be together? as far as i can tell, celia travels with the circus & marco stays in london to be rich guy’s assistant. they see each other sometimes when celia visits london or when marco visits the circus. marco is not bound to be rich guy’s assistant. it seems like he could go ahead & travel with the circus if he wanted to. celia does seem to be bound to the circus, which is the staging ground for the contest. basically, marco & celia just have to keep coming up with new ideas for tents. marco makes a garden made out of ice. celia makes a carousel full of animals that appear to actually be alive. like i said, the magic they are doing is not designed to harm their opponent. so why can’t they just do it together? i really don’t get this. there are some shenanigans about how marco has this complicated system for keeping the circus & everyone involved with it safe & it is sapping his powers, & celia is exhausted by the pressures of moving the circus from town to town via magical steam engine or something (*cough* hogwarts express *cough*), but i still don’t understand WHy celia has to move the circus with a magic train or WHY marco is busting his hump to ensure magical security at the circus. there’s some bit about how it’s magic that keeps the acrobats from falling to their deaths. well, then they’re not great acrobats, are they?
eventually marco & celia realize that the only way to end the contest is for one of them to die. there’s a whole lot of twilight-esque bantering about, “i’ll kill myself!” “no, i will!” “but i couldn’t live without you! allow me to die instead!” here’s a thought: how about if you both off yourselves & spare me the histrionics? it’s also weird because i really didn’t feel that they knew each other that well. by the time they figure out that one of them has to die, they have met each other like five times (that we see–& if they had a more noteworthy love affair off-screen, then the author is an even worse writer than i thought for not letting us in on that fact, which is the only thing that could possibly make the love story remotely compelling).
there are also some twins that have weird psychic powers, not unlike all of the vampires in twilight. they foresee a dangerous fire that destroys the circus, exactly like what happened in geek love. ugh, this book. i see your references, morgenstern. because they are sloppy & obvious. it’s the twins who help find a solution, drafting some sad sack country boy into learning magic & taking over the circus so celia & marco can perform their little bit of hocus pocus & lead really sad ghost lives together. i bet living as a powerless apparition got real old real fast, but you know, they’re in love & that makes it all worthwhile. dude, i am in love too but that doesn’t mean that i would be totally okay spending eternity embraced by my lover & never getting to, like, take a bath & read a book. i don’t know.
i guess that if you are the kind of person for whom sumptuous, descriptive writing trumps a completely derivative & non-sensical storyline & poorly sketched-out, tedious characters, you will have a field day with this book. i know writing classes tell authors to show not tell, but that only really works if all the showing you’re doing is actually TELLING a story. this book. i don’t even.