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Morgenstern works magic in enchanting debut novel

The most anticipated debut of the fall publishing season, "The Night Circus" is a triumph of imagination, weaving an enchantment that is perfect, wondrous storytelling.

And the novel is every bit as good as the hype would lead you to believe, as the new Harry Potter -- not in the sense that the book is for children, but that it will appeal to the generation that grew up immersed in J.K. Rowling's fantasy world and is looking for something equally magical.

The publisher sees the book's forbidden romance between rival illusionists appealing to "Twilight" fans as well; film rights have been sold to Summit Entertainment (of the "Twilight" movies) and Summit is promoting the book on its official "Twilight" Facebook page.

Erin Morgenstern writes with a wonderful immediacy, always in the present tense -- we find out why much later -- as in: "The circus arrives without warning." Suddenly, in a field outside London or Boston or Moscow or Concord, Mass., the black and white striped tents of Le Cirque des Reves materialize, revealing wonders like no other: a contortionist who can fold herself into a small glass box, a floating maze of clouds where one can climb or jump without fear of injury, a glittering ice garden, a carousel of breathing gryphons and foxes suspended on ribbons, a fearsome acrobatic display, a bonfire that burns white flames.

Then there is the wondrous monochromatic clock at the entrance, that changes color and expands and contracts, revealing a silver dragon, a chess game, a pacing princess, teapots that pour, dogs chasing cats, a harlequin juggling silver balls that tell the hour.

Circusgoers savoring their caramel apples or chocolate mice or chocolate bats with delicate wings revel in the marvels, unaware that behind the scenes a fierce -- and deadly -- competition is under way between two young magicians who have been groomed since childhood for this battle of the imagination.

Set at the close of the 19th century and dawn of the 20th in New York, London, Prague, Munich, Concord, Mass., and wherever the circus alights, the story is told out of order, each chapter heading bearing an interesting title ("Oneiromancy," "Ailuromancy," "Horology") and the date and location of the action.

The puppetmasters behind this deadly contest are most interesting villains. Prospero the Enchanter, whose real name is Hector Bowen, disguises his talent for actual magic as stage illusion for commercial gain in a way that disgusts his opponent, an enigmatic character referred to as "the man in the grey suit." Bowen sees great potential in his 5-year-old daughter, Celia, whom he meets for the first time in New York after her mother commits suicide. (He responds to the news that he has a daughter with the F-word on Page 10, the only profanity in the entire book, but one that might give school librarians pause.)

Like her father, Celia can do magic although her emotions interfere with her skill; after her father insults her dead mother, Celia shatters a teacup without touching it, then reassembles it, tea and all. Bowen is enthusiastic about bonding his gifted daughter in a competition with another and seals the bargain with a ring burned onto her finger. And the magic lessons begin, teaching Celia to channel her gift into ever more impressive displays.

Bowen is a nasty character. Among the exercises he gives his daughter: He slices open her fingertips with a knife, then commands her to heal them up again. Another time he smashes her wrist with a glass paperweight, another lesson, in stitching the shards of bone back together.

"The man in the grey suit" discovers his challenger for the competition in 9-year-old Marco, a smart, athletic lad but with no innate magical ability at a London orphanage and starts his years-long tutelage studying languages, visiting museums and libraries.

Morgenstern peoples her novel with marvelous characters: Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, the knife-thrower and theatrical manager; contortionist Tsukiko with her strangely elaborate tattoos, of Norse runes, astrological symbols, Chinese characters; Mme. Ana Padva, a retired Romanian prima ballerina who designs costumes for the circus; Isobel, the tarot card reader who is in love with Marco; the red-headed twins Poppet and Widget who are born on the circus' opening night; the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen who falls in love with the circus and follows it around the world with other ardent fans, deemed "reveurs"; Bailey, the farmer's son from Concord, Mass., whose life changes forever when he trespasses on the circus grounds by daytime on a dare from his older sister.

The circus itself is black and white, but Morgenstern fills her novel with colorful, exotic, delicious detail. The circus plans take shape at elegant Midnight Dinners where guests dine on quail or rabbit or lamb served on banana leaves or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries, "cakes layered to impossible heights," "figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers."

The novel is rich in humor: The circus warning sign declares "Trespassers will be exanguinated"; Lefevre observes, on his decision to hire only one contortionist, "better to have a single perfect diamond than a sack of flawed stones." The complicated magic tricks extend from fabric color changes and igniting chairs to erasing memory, altering perception, even defying death.

It's quite a feat this debut author pulls off, constructing a novel about illusionists who can perform the impossible yet grounding her fantasy so solidly in a beautifully described realistic world that it has its own credible emotional reality. In another impressive sleight of hand, Morgenstern waits a tantalizingly long time to reveal the devastating end game.

For the "reveurs," who follow the circus: "Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent."

Those who read Morgenstern's lovely entertainment will likely feel the same way.

Jean Westmoore is The News' longtime children's book reviewer.

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The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

Doubleday

387 pages $26.95.