Roll up, roll up. Erin Morgenstern's first novel arrives in the UK with the praise from US critics ringing in its ears.
Only time will tell, though, whether calling a work of fiction "the new Harry Potter" is the literary equivalent of hailing a singer-songwriter as "the new Bob Dylan" (ie, the kiss of death). To her credit, Morgenstern has routinely pointed out that The Night Circus is not a series, nor is it aimed at young people, neither of which facts has stopped film rights being sold to the team behind the teen-vampire brand Twilight, and a "dazzling multi-platform on- and offline marketing and publicity campaign".
Can The Night Circus live up to the hype? Could anything? Incredibly, for the first 150 or so pages, it does, creating a world that is as magical as it is believable. Prospero the Enchanter is a stage magician performing in New York in 1873 when an envelope arrives at the stage door attached to a five-year-old girl who happens to be his daughter, Celia.
Like her father, the girl possesses the power to move objects by thought; basic skills that Prospero – whose real name is Hector Bowen – will encourage in order to challenge his mysterious friend, Alexander, to a game. The game will shape the lives of Celia and Alexander's protégé Marco. The rules will remain unknown to the participants. The game will be played to the finish. But it will need a venue, and that venue will be the Cirque des Rêves.
"The circus arrives without warning ..." and becomes an international sensation. The attractions within it are as enchanting and eccentric as the team put in place to create it and, up to the point at which the game takes over and the circus itself takes second place, Morgenstern's book is a blend of Angela Carter and Susanna Clarke that is as dazzling as one of Prospero's or Celia's "illusions".
The spell is broken when the story starts leaping backwards and forwards in time to the point that you need a flux capacitor. Then, Celia and Mario fall in love. Suddenly, no sentence is allowed to contain a contraction and the dialogue clunks louder than a 1970s advert for seatbelts.
"'Do you remember all of your audiences,' Marco asks. 'Not all of them,' Celia says. 'But I remember the people who look at me the way you do.' 'What way might that be?' 'As though they cannot decide if they are afraid of me or want to kiss me.' 'I am not afraid of you,' Marco says ..." etc. All of which will make sense to teen vampire fans, but adult readers – whom, remember, Morgernstern insists the book is aimed at – will struggle.
Another problem is that, as both illusions and circus attractions become ever more elaborate (a cloud maze here, a pool of tears there), so the writing has to describe them and – as with modern films' over-reliance on CGI – the smaller wonders that truly fire readers' imaginations are lost in a puff of smoke. Step this way? The Night Circus is a first novel of some promise. Expect no more and you won't be too disappointed.