My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As I turned the final pages of this rare and magical read, I was filled with melancholy and longing. Ordinary life seems so, well, ordinary. I ached to remain a rêveur – a devotee of Le Cirque des Rêves – lost in the black and white gloaming of this circus of illusion and wonder.
This is a story for romantics. It is about the power of magic over fate, of love over destiny, of community over individual will. It is told in a dream-like narrative that unfolds within the vault of your imagination as it intersects with Morgenstern’s vivid descriptions. The third person omniscient voice and the present-tense setting work in deliberate contretemps, as you move both with the action and yet above it all. Morgenstern also shifts the setting between chapters (the story takes place in lush, late Victorian Gothic between 1873 and 1903, with present-day making a cameo appearance), allowing sleight-of-hand foreshadowing and memories to tilt her parallel worlds even more off-center.
The book jacket description is deceptive and is perhaps partly to blame for the perceived weakness of the story: that this is a book of settings, not plot. The action is muted, the competition between the two skilled “illusionists” slow to unfold and rarely heated. Do not embark upon this journey thinking you will see sparks fly between dueling wizards, or swoop into a tundra with angels and polar bears chasing mad scientists, or follow the quest of elves and hobbits seeking a cursed ring. You will, however, be mesmerized by a world that seems sinister and pure at the same time.
Morgenstern’s allegories do not have the weight of those presented by Lewis, Pullman, or Tolkien, nor does her story have the addictive immediacy of J.K. Rowling’s creations. Too often she lets slip a modern colloquialism that rings trite. But on the whole her writing is enchanting. She pays homage to the greatest literary fairy tales and fantasies in her own fashion, creating heroes out of ordinary folk, making burdens out of gifts, and allowing her characters just enough free will to undo what nature has set in motion. It was a joy to lose myself in her beautiful writing, in her unique and colorful world, and in the souls of her tender characters. This was a reminder of why I love to read: for pleasure, to be delighted, to wander away from reality. Too bad I have to be jolted awake. There are some dreams you wish would never end.
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