There seem to be two schools of thought on this book: either you love it, or you hate it. I happen to love it! However, I can see how some who read the description of the book might find themselves disappointed, as it does hype the book up to be a little more than it really is.
The Night Circus is about Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), a mysterious circus that simply appears over night with no announcement. It is simply there, when the day before it wasn't. The Circus is unlike any other circus that has ever existed. It is completely devoid of color - everything is black and white, or shades of gray. There are no clowns or elephants - instead the attractions of Le Cirque des Rêves are far more mysterious and wondrous.
The descriptions of the Circus were my favorite parts of the book, however some have criticized them as being too wordy. I disagree with this assessment. I found the descriptions to be a perfect aid to my imagination. The Circus is truly a fantastical and wondrous backdrop to the greater story.
Unknown to the may patrons of Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus is actually a battleground for a challenge taking place between Celia and Marco, two magicians who have been training for this challenge all their lives. Their instructors are old rivals who have held similar challenges throughout the ages, both claiming that their teaching methods are superior to the others. Celia and Marco find themselves caught up in this rivalry without a clear explanation as to the rules of the challenge. One thing becomes clear however - the challenge doesn't end until there is only one competitor standing. The use of the word "challenge" is slightly misleading - it implies that there are epic battles of magical power. This is not the case. The challenge is more a battle of endurance - as Celia and Marco attempt to one-up each other with magical creativity, becoming more and more entangled in the magic of the Circus and struggling to maintain it, while protecting the lives of those involved with the Circus. Those expecting action packed battles will be disappointed.
Complicating matters, Marco and Celia fall in love. Their love story is another point of criticism. If you know that ending the challenge will result in the destruction of the one you love, why wouldn't you continue to play? Easy, because the subtle nature of the challenge won't allow it. There has to be a winner. Maintaining the magic of the Circus while continually adding to it is exhausting - eventually one player will not be able to continue. It is almost cruel - Celia and Marco were chosen as pawns in a game between their two teachers who are determined to show the superiority of their methods. They have no regard for the players themselves, willing to sacrifice them if they should lose. What's intriguing is that the players are not only bound to the game, but also each other. They love and understand each other in a way that no one else can. I found the love story between Marco and Celia very sweet and also a little sad. It added a sense of inevitability and tragedy to the fantasy of the Circus - despite their love, they know that one of them must destroy the other, or sacrifice themselves to save the other.