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Monday, May 7, 2012

The Night Circus

The circus isn't really my thing, so I ignored the buzz about this book until just recently, when I found out that our library system is staging a Midsummer's Eve event based on The Night Circus (#182) by Erin Morgenstern.  I was curious then, so I put it on my list, and Reader, am I glad I did!  This book is magical.

The Night Circus arrives in town without warning, does not open until sundown, and provides those lucky enough to visit with a myriad of choices, each attraction housed in an individual black and white striped tent.  The fragrances are more wonderful than you can imagine, and all the food and drink tastes better there.  But there's more going on here at the circus.  It is the setting for a challenge for Celia and Marco, the apprentices of two old masters of magic.  These players are unaware of the rules, or even who their opponents are initially, as they meet, fall in love, and slowly come to realize that the game they are unwillingly playing is stacked against them to produce only one winner.

Though the story begins in the 1870s, most of the action takes place in an elegant fin de siecle world of black, white and silver.  The patrons who are invited to contribute to the ambiance of the Cirque des Reves form a colorful contrast to the monochromatic fantasy they create; Lefevre, the rich eccentric and proprietor of this undertaking, Mr. Barris, the engineer providing a platform of reality to build on, Tante Pavda, the elderly former ballerina turned couturier extraordinaire, the Burgess sisters who provide exactly the right dashes of panache, and Friedrick Thiessen, creator of the astonishing clock that greets visitors at the Cirque's entrance.  And then there are the characters who people the circus itself - the contortionist, the illusionist, the acrobats, the fortune teller, and the red-haired twins born the night the circus opens - with their magical skills.

There are also a group of people from all over the world who are called reveurs.   They are the true fans of the Cirque de Reves who recognize each other at the circus by their black and white clothing punctuated by a shock of red.  By the end of the book, I longed to join their number.  The biggest disappointment in this book is that you know that the Cirque des Reves will never arrive at your town so you can experience its wonders for yourself.  For now, it's enough to immerse yourself in this enchanting book.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Equal of the Sun

Tired of the Tudors?  Anita Amirrezvani's latest book Equal of the Sun (#181) introduces Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, daughter of the Shah of Iran, and member of the powerful ruling Safavi dynasty.  She has been raised at her father's side with an intimate knowledge of court politics, law and culture.  When her father dies unexpectedly after a long and stable rule, Princess Pari throws her support to a brother who has been imprisoned by their father for a number of years, as it turns out for good reason.  The number of legitimate contenders in the Iranian court makes the English power struggles over the throne and succession look tame by comparison.

Although Princess Pari and the major players in this novel are real, the story is told from the point of view of the fictional Javaher, a eunuch, a gift from her father shortly before his death.  Javaher has chosen to become a eunuch in order to serve the court, a decision that mystifies many people.  He is loyal to Pari, but Javaher does have his own agenda.  Once he proves himself to Pari, he is in a unique position to gather information for her in the gatherings of the court itself, forbidden to Pari as a woman, and also from the closed world of the women in the harem, where he can pass freely.  Pari cannot rule in her own right but she is determined to be a power player, by whatever means are necessary.  Javaher definitely should have taken the advice of his sage old eunuch mentor Balamani who tells him, "Never love a royal". 

This is Ms. Amirrezvani's second novel.  Her first, The Blood of Flowers, also set in 16th century Iran, was a standout.  I was really excited to win an advance copy of Equal of the Sun as a First Reads on the Good Reads website.   If you read historical fiction for the same reason I do, to be transported to a different time and place, to meet characters with a compelling story to tell, Equal of the Sun will fill the bill nicely.  It's always a bonus to learn something new about a culture and time that you know nothing about.  In this case, the power struggles may be familiar, but the language of the court and the poetry as the pinnacle of learning and accomplishment is such that it cannot fail to move you with its beauty.  A recommended read for all the right reasons.