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Fantasy and magic have a grip on the best-seller lists, novels like "The Magician King" and "A Dance with Dragons." The latest book of magic vying for attention is "The Night Circus" by first-time novelist Erin Morgenstern. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, this fascination with the fantastic is both a new trend and an age-old tradition.

LYNN NEARY: Magic has never really gone out of style.

LAURA MILLER: This is the core category of stories that people tell.

NEARY: Since the beginning of time, says Salon reviewer Laura Miller, people have loved stories about gods and demons, monsters and magicians. But for a couple of hundred years or so, those stories have been competing with the reality-based fiction of the modern novel. Magic was thought to be the stuff of kids' books. And that may be so, says Miller, but don't ask adults who grew up on "Harry Potter" to give up magic.

MILLER: Above all, that generation that was raised on "Harry Potter" has grown up to say, yeah, I may want to read Jane Austen, I may want to read Jonathan Franzen, but I also want to read this intoxicating, imaginative narrative as well. I don't want to have to leave that behind just because I'm a grown-up. And really, there's no reason why they should.

NEARY: Miller, who has always loved fantasy fiction, is delighted to see this new trend. She says readers who might never have indulged in books about the fantastic now feel they have permission to take the plunge.

MILLER: Obviously, there are many adults who have never had any problem with reading narratives with elements of the fantastic in them. It's more the falling away of the idea that only a realistic narrative is sufficiently serious or sufficiently highbrow or sufficiently adult for a self-respecting adult reader. It's more that once that falls away, then the basic human desire for stories of the marvelous just comes flooding in.

NEARY: Poised to grab a chunk of this readership is "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern. It's the story of a mysterious circus that is the setting for a prolonged life or death competition between two young magicians. Before it's all over, the two competitors defy all the rules of the game by falling in love with each other.

ERIN MORGENSTERN: The circus came first, and I figured out pretty early on that it wasn't a regular circus, and that there were magical things kind of creeping around the edges.

NEARY: Erin Morgenstern says her own interest in fantasy grew out of her love for books like "Alice in Wonderland" and, later, magic realism.

MORGENSTERN: My magic is sort of real-world magic, and I like that accessibility of, like, maybe the circus would show up in your own backyard. It makes it seem a little closer.

NEARY: An artist as well as a writer, Morgenstern's descriptions of the circus are vivid and detailed. It is entirely black and white, and made up of a series of tents, each one a fully realized world. No one knows where or when the circus will appear.

MORGENSTERN: (Reading) The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

NEARY: The magic in the book is real. The two young contestants, Marco and Celia, have been trained their entire lives for their competition, the rules of which they only barely understand. But if they are in the dark, the people around them are even more so. They think the magic of the circus is trickery, a very sophisticated slight of hand. No one is quite sure what is real and what is fake.

MORGENSTERN: I liked the idea of having actual magic performed as stage magic, so you could assume that it was just a trick, that something is all smoke and mirrors, but there's that, like, feeling at the back of your mind: What if it's not?

NEARY: Marco and Celia first meet when she auditions for the circus, and he realizes that she may be more than just a master of illusion.

MORGENSTERN: (Reading) No one is watching her except Marco as she stands perfectly still on the stage, waiting patiently. And then very slowly, her gown begins to change. Starting at the neckline, seeping down like ink, the green silk is turning a murky midnight black. Marco gasps. Chandresh and Madame Padva turned at the sound just in time to witness the creeping black fade into snow-bright white at the bottom of the skirt until all evidence that the gown was ever green is gone.

NEARY: As mind boggling as Marco and Celia's tricks may be, Morgenstern says their magic goes only so far in helping them to shape their own destiny.

MORGENSTERN: The phrase nothing is impossible comes up a lot. I think I wanted to play with that a little bit and have that there were limits to what could be done, like, that there's a life and death sort of aspect, that they can't fix certain things.

NEARY: Magic may not be able to fix everything, but in the world of books, it's a force to be reckoned with and enjoyed. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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