I seem to find myself drawn to books set in Victorian times. I'm also drawn to books in which magic features prominently. The Night Circus, a book set in Victorian times in which magic features prominently seemed right up my alley, and, indeed, it was.
At its heart, however, The Night Circus is a love story. Celia and Marco are each participants in a game involving magic. The two do not know the rules are not known; they do not know their opponents; they do not even know what constitutes. Each is raised by a cruel guardian. Under the direction of her father, Celia learns magic, particularly the ability to create, destroy, and re-create objects. Her father repeatedly slices open her fingers so she can learn to repair them. She becomes involved with developing a circus, the Cirque des Reves, and is the circus's illusionist - except the illusions are, in fact, real. Marco, an orphan, is adopted by a man who teaches him magic and arranges for him to be apprenticed to the man behind the finances of the circus. He is kept a virtual prisoner in his house in order to learn his skills. As the years go by, and the circus develops into a success that appears mysteriously in a town one night and disappears just as mysteriously after its run, it is clear that Celia and Marco have been weaving their magic into the circus itself.
Eventually the pair meet and, of course, fall in love against the advice of their guardians. Only one can survive, they are told - the game ends only when one player cannot go on.
The magic is as hard-won as that in Lev Grossman's The Magicians. (Both books are discussed on Episode 86 of The Incomparable! podcast.) While magic is integral to the plot, this a story about love and friendship, about unintended consequences, of free will versus carrying out the wishes of others. I enjoyed the book very much. The narrative is anything but straightforward, and the action moves slowly - indeed, years pass in the book - so The Night Circus may not be for everyone. But it hits the sweet spot of Victorian magicians in love.