Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Hector Bowen - most famous for his stage name, Prospero the Enchanter - receives an unexpected surprise in the form of his young daughter, Celia. Her mother has committed suicide, so Celia is now solely in her father's charge. Upon finding out about his daughter's powers, however, the prospect does not seem so bleak to Hector, and he instead looks to see how he can use her. He calls his old friend, Mr A-H-- and proposes a contest between his daughter and someone of Mr A-H-'s choosing. The rules of the contest are unspecified to the reader, but known completely to the two competitors.
About a decade later, a man called Chandresh Christopher Lefevre, at one of his famously mysterious midnight dinners, brings together an illustrious group of artists, renowned in their respective fields. He proposes a new form of circus but unlike any other the world has seen. It was be solely at night; it will arrive in its locations without warning; it will be an ever-growing circus of many tents; and only the best and most magical performers will be on show.
Marco - Chandresh's assistant and Mr A-H-'s chosen competitor - and Celia Bowen meet as Celia auditions for the circus. Marco soon realises that Celia is to be his opponent, whereas Celia does not realise this for some years.
The story is told in a series of episodes, flitting back and forth between years, sometimes the previous century, which can get confusing but also could be representative of the unpredictable nature of the circus itself. The episodes are either from a specific character's viewpoint, or written in second person as the reader is guided through the circus itself. The characterisation is deep and complex - a great feat considering the size of cast - and the circus itself is rich and magical. You can find yourself envious of the reveurs, (dreamers) - the biggest fans of the circus who make it their life's mission to follow the circus as much as they can.
You could stay absorbed in the world of the circus forever, but as time goes on, the cracks begin to show. Celia is holding the circus together. Several features of the circus itself, like the ever-burning bonfire, are key elements without which the circus would break down but themselves getting harder to hold. Celia and Marco, after discovering their unintentional rivalry, find themselves slowly falling in love, and weary of this contest between them. All of this points to the finale ending in tragedy - but I won't spoil it. Suffice to say, it's a suitably enigmatic and satisfying ending for a story that contains as many moving and surreal parts as it does.
It's really a triumph of imagery and atmosphere, with many endearing and sympathetic characters that you hold in admiration and wonder. Pity is there as well, knowing their lives are not completely their own because of the ego and ambition of Hector and Mr A-H. It's an incredible feat of writing.