Magical. Absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and compelling to boot. It took me about 50 pages to get into this book, but at some point I felt like I was completely immersed in the black and white world of the night circus. I have not read a book that I have enjoyed as thoroughly in several months.
The language is fabulous, the plot is intricately woven and gently tugs the reader along, the characters are complex and loveable, and the continued juxtiposition of time between the climax of 11/2/02 and early circus life is just the right mix of confusing and revealing.
That said, I do have a few complaints. First, I knew from the moment that Marco met Celia in her audition that he was in love with her. It was a "star struck" moment if anything ever was; certainly a bit unbelievable that she did not feel anything in return and that it was another (10?) years before they realized the extent of their own feelings for each other.
My only other complaint is with the 2nd to last chapter (meeting between Alexander and Widget) in which Morgenstern ties things up too neatly. There are a few moments in this conversation that are nice (I understand the author's compunction to specifically delineate Widget's story-telling role and emphasize the importance of story telling as an art..but it comes across as just self aggrandizement?). After telling us that (and really being explicit was not necessary after all the sweeping outlining she has done throughout the novel...if the readers aren't with her in the last 20 pages, they don't deserve to be and for those of us who are it is insulting) stories don't have endings, she tries to provide a circular ending of "the circus arrived without warning." Too trite, too pretty, and really disappointing after the amazing ride of the novel. She should have ended the novel with Poppet's visit to LeFarve. (The last excerpt about the modern person leaving the circus was fine as a post-script, but the novel proper should not have included the Alexander/Widget meeting, in my not-so-humble opinion)
Finally, this is the only fantasy novel I can think of where the characters have actual, believable problems. So often, witches (or warlocks or vampires or whomever) are concerned with mundane things. They need to make ends meet and can't get a job or they are hounded by "muggle" (to steal JK Rowling's term) police or issues. Really, I am left thinking throughout most fantasy novels, HOW COME THEY CAN'T JUST MAGIC THEIR WAY OUT OF THIS SITUATION? Morgenstern constructs a problem through the binding that requires Marco and Celia to magic themselves out of it and appears to be a legitimate struggle, even for such talented magicians as these. Bravo.
***For my own purposes (really nothing to do with this review), I wanted to keep this quote. I read this as a library copy and just wanted to note this passage somewhere:
"'Visiting far-flung friends seemed a good place to start. I would have sent a telegram but it was all a bit spontaneous. And I wasn't entirely sure if I would be welcome.' 'You are always welcome, Tara' Mr Barris says. He offers her a seat but she does not notice, drifting through the tables covered in highly detailed models of buildings, stopping here and there to investigate a detail further: the arch of a doorway, the spiral of a staircase. 'It becomes difficult to tell the difference between old friends and business associates in cases like ours, I think,' Tara says. 'Whether we are the kind of people who make polite conversation to cover shared secrets or someting more than that.'"