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'Night Circus' is three-ring magic

THE NIGHT CIRCUS, by Erin Morgenstern. Doubleday, 387 pp., $26.95.

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, "The Night Circus," is quietly, enchantingly perfect. In 1873, two men who may or may not be immortal make a bet. In a world that does not believe in magic, they will stage a grand magical contest. Each will train a student in the magical arts and then set one against the other. The competition will last for years.

One man chooses his small daughter, Celia. He trains her in a form of magic that draws its power from her emotions -- rage, passion, delight. The other man chooses an orphan, Marco. He trains him in a magic that owes its power to the intellect -- mathematics, history, physics. The arena for the competition must be one where the average person, expecting sleights of hand, will not recognize real magic: The Circus.

And so, across the fin de siècle, cities and towns around the world are visited by a circus. Out of nowhere, black-and-white striped tents appear in a field. A sign hangs on the gate, explaining that visitors are welcome between nightfall and dawn. When twilight arrives, the circus comes to life.

"Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back. . . . When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads: Le Cirque des Rêves."

The Circus of Dreams. And, indeed, reading this novel is like having a marvelous dream, in which you are asleep enough to believe everything that is happening, but awake enough to relish the experience and understand that it is magical. Morgenstern is an artist as well as a writer, and her novel is lusciously visual. Every scene is like a medieval painting, saturated with color and detail; each realistic facet only enhances the mystical strangeness of the whole.

As the competition between Celia and Marco develops, the circus tents come to house more and more fantastical sideshows. He creates one, and she responds. She makes an alteration, and he adjusts. Soon their rivalry gives way to admiration and collaboration. Their sponsors -- the two old men who watch from the sidelines -- begin to get worried. Will the age-old fight -- between mind and body, passion and intellect, male and female -- be undone by the affection of one performer for another?

But this is and is not a story of love conquering all. The other circus performers also begin to worry. The magic, which they only vaguely recognize, is altering them, leading them further away from reality. The burgeoning mystery of the circus is becoming too top heavy for the humdrum world of railways and factories that it relies on for its existence. Like all good art, including novels that must lead us through to a final, beautiful page, the circus' triumph lies in its legacy rather than in its survival.

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