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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Almost German Expressionism - The Romance Novel

Posting your thoughts on someone else's work immediately after posting some of your own is probably in bad form, but oh well.  I'm not claiming I'm any better or worse or anything.  Just a disclaimer.

I don't read nearly as much as I want to anymore. I suppose it's just a matter of priorities, but it's still rather unfortunate. Most of what I read I actually listen to on audio book traveling to and from college in the car.

Recently, I just finished a book by Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. Now, if I didn't know better, I'd guess that Erin Morgenstern were a pen-name. I mean, how awesome is it to have the last name "blackstar?" Erin Blackstar. German is an awesome language, isn't it? Damn recht es ist.

The story itself is a romance framed by a contest between the disciples of two magicians, who are out to answer the question of whether sorcerers or wizards are stronger once and for all.

Of course, the story has nothing to do with D&D, but the two magicians certainly lie on that dichotomy. Marco is the wizard, and his reliance on spellbooks (not in the traditional sense, mind you) and power sources gives him a large amount of control and autonomy, but little at-will power. Celia is the sorcerer, her power limited on the upper bound by raw force of will, and on the lower bound by self-control and self-knowledge.

Inevitably, they fall in a nominally all-consuming love, and inevitably, the plot comes in between them and happiness. I have no deep and abiding love for romance novels, but I appreciate the well done ones, and the Night Circus, hypothetically, has some interesting things going for it.

For one, I am a huge fan of stories that use magic thematically rather than solely as plot propellant or setting window dressing. Magic in this world is complicated and makes it much easier to make serious mistakes. It is a constant drain on both contestants to maintain the circus. At least, we're told this, but I don't think either of these points are ever driven home, even if the plot elements are there. The one time when magic amplifies ordinary drama beyond its normal scope, when the novel actually demonstrates how easy it is to mess up with magic, it feels very much like douche ex machina. We never are given a decent explanation for why a certain character incites another to go murder a certain other one. It's just something that happens.

And really, that explains a lot about how the characters act in this novel. For main characters who carry literal scars with them from their past, they've got themselves very much together, and aren't seen really doing anything that isn't required explicitly by the plot. You'd think they'd be full of wonderfully interesting quirks and insecurities and motivations beyond the challenge, but they really don't. There is extraordinarily little character drama going on here. It's just them versus the plot, and the plot inevitably wins.

All of this ends up with an author filibuster as delivered through a one-sided conversation between A.H. and Widge (not the Cyberchase character...oh god, why do I even still remember that show?). I really wish Widge had provided a more contrasting point of view in that tract. That would have made it a lot stronger, I think. As is, the story doesn't really have much in the way of commentary on anything except the context this final conversation gives, but what was there wasn't...bad...per se, but it was a bit hollow, and along with the unsatisfying love story with the unsatisfying characters, this only leaves the story one leg to stand on.

The writing itself.

Which is pretty awesome. It maintains atmosphere extraordinarily well. The surrealism of the circus is handled quite well, even if it does seem a tad obsessed with the smell of caramel (is it a metaphor or something?). The story is structured in a non-linear fashion that at first seems unnecessary but eventually becomes understandable as a creative choice. The world-building is convincing and sets a very interesting stage that deserved an equally interesting cast. I would love to see another story, written with these same premises, in this same narrative voice. I hope Ms. Morgenstern (power metal riff here) revisits this world at some point, maybe in a short story.

So I guess my overall reaction is that this isn't a really bad story. It's not, even if I'm critical of it. I'm critical of it because of how much better it could have been. I did enjoy listening to it very much, and I suppose I can still give it some sort of recommendation, just on account of its writing style. I just wish it did something more.

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