Let's start with a short description to make sure we are on the same page, from Goodreads:
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.”
I greatly enjoyed this book. The writing style had a very dream-like and ethereal feel to it. The story jumps around the timeline. Though the author just put the years at the start of the chapters and did not include anything to let you know how long it has been since the game began or how long until it begins. Which I think would help us as the readers know how far into the game we are and how many years the character’s have put into it. If you are better with dates then you will know how long it’s been, because Erin does include the year at the start of every chapter.
This book is filled with many interesting characters, including the main two magicians and their teachers. Celia and Marco were taught in completely different ways, and the game was used to prove which way was best to teach magic. Celia was taught by her father breaking objects and making her fix them. This elevated him to cutting her fingers and making her heal them, then to breaking a bird’s wing and asking her to heal the bird. She couldn’t and he killed it. The way she was brought up with a hands on and out right abusive approach. The book, I feel, doesn’t hold her dad responsible enough for the abuse he does to her, and to past players of this game assumedly. Her dad was very dismissive of her wants and needs, including when she wanted to spend more time reading about the glyphs and theories behind magic and he would not let her. Her dad kept her isolated in the backs of therturs as he traveled around the world performing for crowds. While Marco’s teacher pulled him from an orphanage and taught him magic through almost exclusively books and the glyphs and theories. Marco’s teacher also kept Marco isolated from other people, in an old townhouse in London. Marco was also abused but through neglect rather than physical and emotional abuse like Celia. Both teachers are not shown much through the books as once the game begins they are meant to back off and let their students go without intervention. This doesn’t always happen but they try.
But those aren't the only characters in this book. Another important group are the other members of the circus. We have the fortune teller, the contortionist, and the twins. The fortune teller is named Isobel Martin and she and Marco were in a relationship when the circus was being designed. She chose to join to keep an eye on Celia for Marco. She sends letters to Marco keeping him up to date on the circus and pining for him. But Marco doesn’t feel the same for long, once he meets Celia he doesn’t pay much attention to her. She is a very sweet girl and very loyal to Marco, she stays with the circus for decades. But she does eventually leave to continue living her life not surrounding a man who doesn’t care about her the same way she cares about him. The contortionist is actually an old student of Marco’s teacher who won the previous game. She is covered in tattoos including some glyphs of magic. Her name is Tsukiko and she seems to know this is the setting of the next game. After being a part of the circus for years she comes to care about it to the point of trying to protect it at all costs. Tsukiko is a very interesting character especially when we as the reader can tell she knows more about what’s going on then even the main characters. She doesn’t use her magic often, though she might be using it to do the contortion. I believe this is because of how the previous game ended with her opponent, who she fell in love with, dying by suicide. She really falls into the circus and becomes very intertwined in it. When it appears like Celia and Marco might try to run off and escape the game, which would destroy the circus, she logics out who she thinks the circus could survive without. Which she determines is Marcos and comes to him about killing him with the large bonfire in the center of the circus as a way of bounding him to the circus and trapping him there. He actually does agree which I was surprised about.
The twins, nicknamed Poppet and Widget, were born on the opening night of the circus. Their parents do a big cat show in the circus. They were born at midnight when the bonfire was lit and when Marcos did a spell to bind himself to the circus since he could not physically be there. This spell gave the twins magical abilities, Poppet can look to the stars and see glimpses of the future, and Widget and look at someone and read their past as if it’s written on their skin. The twins become very important though the story as they grow up, they help Celia figure out that something bad is coming. After Tsukiko tries to kill Marco and Celia and Marco end up as ghosts haunting the circus, the twins plus a boy named Bailey end up taking over the circus. The twins are also the only characters involved in the circus to age. When Marcos lit the bonfire his spell also preserved the people involved in the circus, the performers and behind the scene folks, so they never or very very slowly age. The circus goes on for decades and decades without anyone getting sick, pregnant, or dying while they are involved. This goes on without many people noticing for quite some time. The book hand waves this away by having them not fully notice time passing. Since they are in the circus and days are all similar and dreamlike they believe it for a while. Until someone in the backend dies in an accident.
I would recommend this book to those that enjoy dreamlike fantasy. It is not much of a romance though it is marketed as one, as the protagonists don’t even interact with each other until two thirds of the way through the book. They both have small romances with other people earlier in the book but once they meet they just fall in love immediately but try to stay away for the sake of the game. They leave the romance on the backburner until they can’t take it anymore, they have one night together then Celia tries to find a way to run away and Marco agrees to be killed via bonfire. So very little romance if that is what you are looking for. But the magic system is interesting even if it is kept vague. Overall it is a good read.