Thom Geier
September 14, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Night Circus

Current Status
In Season
Erin Morgenstern

We gave it a B

Are magicians the new vampires? Hollywood seems to think so, with a host of projects featuring everyone from James Franco (Oz: The Great and Powerful) to Steve Carell (Burt Wonderstone) as illusionists who convey a sense of sex appeal, humanity, and otherworldliness. Among the half-dozen magic-based movies in the works is one based on Erin Morgenstern’s promising and likable debut novel, The Night Circus, which pits rival magicians against each other in a late-19th-century circus whose enchantments are often truly enchanted.

It’s not hard to see what Summit, the studio behind the Twilight series, sees in The Night Circus. There’s an exotic setting: a traveling circus where magic is ”real” (a fire cauldron with multicolored flames, a carousel that ”goes quite a bit further than around and around”). There’s a star-crossed love story between Celia and Marco, young magicians dueling in a potentially deadly competition whose rules are never fully explained. And there’s plot — lots and lots of it, which Morgenstern extracts from her seemingly bottomless top hat. She’s an engaging storyteller, and she leaps between locations and time periods with an admirable dexterity. (Unfortunately for the studio, Circus is unlikely to become a Twilight-like movie franchise. The novel’s epilogue takes us to the present and ties up virtually all the story’s dangling threads.)

While Morgenstern tosses quite a few balls in the air in The Night Circus, she can’t always juggle the disparate elements of her narrative. Several characters and subplots whiz by in a blur, and descriptive passages can be opaque (what exactly is it like to ride on that souped-up merry-go-round?). In a fantasy realm in which just about anything can be made to happen, what does transpire shouldn’t feel as arbitrary as it sometimes does here. Celia’s and Marco’s fates ought to seem inevitable, not the result of authorial sleight of hand. B

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