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Transplanted to Miami, FL, from Iowa City, IA. Trying to find a balance between reading, knitting, playing mom taxi, and enjoying the sun and sand in Miami.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Night Circus and The Lady and Her Monsters

The Night Circus is a fabulous fairytale. The circus itself is created by two magicians, or  perhaps wizards is the better word, as a field of challenge for their respective students. These wizards are not the Harry Potter variety, or the Merlin variety either. They have different approaches to their manipulations of the physical world. One is a showy stage magician, only his illusions are real. His tricks are not accomplished by way of the clever contraptions his contemporaries use. He is hiding real magic in plain sight, his audiences think he is better than other magicians, but they still believe it is slight of hand and tricks of perception. The other man is more comfortable behind the scenes, manipulation through charms, and is a believer in learning from books. If you read it, and live it, you will do it seems to be his motto. These two wizards are constantly trying to prove which of their approaches to magic is correct, which is strongest.

The stage magician is one day confronted with his daughter. Her mother is dead and Celia has been sent to the care of her father. Prospero, the wizards stage name, quickly determines that his daughter posses significant natural ability. He summons his friend Alexander and proposes a challenge. Alexander agrees and seeks out his own perfect student, a young boy from an orphanage.

The young people are trained in each of the wizard’s preferred methods. Eventually, it is time for the challenge to begin and the Night Circus is born. True to it’s name, the night circus is only open from dusk to dawn. During the day, there is no activity. The circus appears out of nowhere and no one knows where it goes when it’s time in a town is finished. The circus appears all over the world, and as it travels, new attractions are added as the young wizards compete with each other.

The circus is a fairytale come to life for those in the book who are lucky enough to visit it. One is able to wander from tent to tent and find which performances they are the most moved by. The actual name of the circus is The Circus of Dreams, and it lives up to its name. It is one of the few books that I absolutely wish I could spend time inside of.

The world that Erin Morgenstern  creates is beautiful and magical. I would love to attend midnight dinners and wander through the circus. I could definitely become one of the dreamers, who follow the circus as much as they are able and meet with other dreamers in their home towns when they cannot be part of the show.

In many ways this is a kinder, gentler world of magic than Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, although there also some similarities between the two stories. Of the two I prefer The Night Circus. I love the hope and optimism that the circus and its story encompass.

Another book that I think there are some interesting commonalities with is The Lady and Her Monsters. Monsters is a nonfiction look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, specifically the scientific experimentation and other experiences that inspired Mary Shelley to write that story. In many ways Monsters is the story of a challenge, only this challenge is on a somewhat bigger scale. There are the alchemists competing to create the Philosopher’s Stone and the scientists who are looking for other ways to cheat death, perhaps by returning life to a body via electricity.

Both Circus and Monsters take place in the 19th century. Circus celebrates the beauty and artistry of scientific creation, like the amazing clock at the entrance to the circus. Other elements of the circus are built by a great architect and embellished by the competing magicians. Monsters, on the other hand, looks at the horror of the march for scientific knowledge. But, the science of Mary Shelley’s time borders on achievements that may only be possible through magic. The autopsies in Monsters take on a circus atmosphere of their own. From public executions to public autopsies, performed for entertainment of the masses and scientific study by the intellectuals.

Circus uses delicate gears and machinery, and magic to create beautiful things, like a carousel that is alive. Monsters uses crude autopsies and the terrifying jolt of electricity to make corpses move.

The Lady and Her Monsters is a fascinating look at our climb out of the dark ages and into a real understanding of the human body and science and medicine. I always find it interesting to wonder where our medical knowledge would be without the destruction and loss of knowledge in the early centuries over a millennium ago.

The Lady and Her Monsters is also a biography of Mary Shelley and the people and science that inspired her creation of Victor Frankenstein and his monster. I have finally chalked up my first non-fiction read for 2013.

It is pure coincidence that I read The Night Circus and The Lady and Her Monsters side by side. However, in a weird way they complemented each other.

I’m going to give The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern 5 stars.
The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo gets 4 stars.