The circus appears unexpectedly in an unnamed location. No advertisements announce its arrival. The circus is unusual because it is entirely black and white. There is a large clock at the entrance, where a crowd gathers at the gates waiting for the circus to open. When dusk arrives, a sign made of light illuminates to read “Le Cirque des Rêves.” A woman explains that it means the Circus of Dreams to her daughter. The gates open so the crowd may enter.  

Part I: Primordium 

Two epigraphs introduce Part I of the novel. One epigraph is an extract from a writing about Le Cirque des Rêves by a man named Friedrich Thiessen. It describes how the circus is made of circles and how there are numerous small tents rather than one big top. The second epigraph is a quote from Oscar Wilde about how dreamers see the world.  

Unexpected Post 

At five years old, Celia is delivered to a theater by an attorney with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her jacket. The note is to her father, Hector Bowen, known by the stage name Prospero the Enchanter. Hector is surprised to meet his daughter, not having known of her existence before that moment. When Prospero makes a joke at Celia’s mother’s expense, Celia gets angry and uses magic to break a nearby teacup. Moments later, the cup reforms perfectly as though nothing had happened. Seeing this, Hector says that Celia may be interesting after all. Some months later, he sends a letter.  

A Gentlemen’s Wager 

Hector performs a sold-out show in London in 1873. In the audience is a person referred to as “the man in the grey suit.” The man in the grey suit is unimpressed with Hector’s show but follows him back to a dressing room where he meets Celia. The man in the grey suit is skeptical when Hector says she has a natural ability for magic. Hector has Celia give a demonstration. Celia spins a pocket watch in the air, but when the man in the grey suit says calls it unremarkable, Celia gets angry and breaks the watch with her mind. Only when she puts it back together again does he call her impressive.  

Hector suggests that he and the man in the grey suit play a game. The man in the grey suit uses magic to ensure that Celia can’t understand what they’re saying while they parse out the rules. The man in the grey suit warns Hector that he risks losing Celia if the game goes forward. Hector is confident that Celia won’t lose. They agree that the man in the grey suit will choose a player who can match her. The man in the grey suit places a silver ring on Celia’s finger. The ring shrinks and burns into her skin, leaving a scar in its place. Hector proposes a more public arena for this new challenge than what they have used in the past. He says that he will drop hints to a man named Chandresh about creating an appropriate venue. After the man in the grey suit leaves, Celia asks why Hector called him “Alexander.” She says that it’s not his real name, but she can’t explain why she knows this. Hector replies that Celia is cleverer than he expected.  

Shades of Grey 

The man in the grey suit interviews three children at an orphanage. The first two are dismissed after a short conversation. The third child, a boy, has keen grey-green eyes that take in the details of the room quickly. The man in the grey suit asks him how old he is and whether he can read. The boy answers that he will be turning nine soon and that he can read, but that there aren’t enough books at the orphanage. The man in the grey suit tosses his cane suddenly and the boy catches it. Satisfied with what he sees, the man in the grey suit tells the boy that he will go to study with him. The boy asks if he has a choice in the matter, so the man in the grey suit asks if he wishes to stay at the institution. The boy says no, and they leave together.


The first two chapters use unconventional narrative structures to establish a tone of ethereal mystery for the entire novel. “Anticipation” is told from second person point of view to place the reader directly into the action as a circusgoer. The abrupt shift to a direct addressing of the reader as “you” provides an immersive experience of the magical circus that encourages the reader’s participation in the story and develops the same curiosity, surprise, and delight that an actual circusgoer might feel. In “Primordium,” setting a quote from a character in the novel alongside one from the real-life writer Oscar Wilde further blurs the lines between reality and the world of the novel. Friedrich Thiessen, while fictional, is juxtaposed with Oscar Wilde to create the impression that they are contemporaries of the same caliber and makes the novel feel all the more real. Similarly, the quote from Oscar Wilde discusses the way dreamers suffer for their unique perspective on the world, connecting this perspective to the ambiance and atmosphere created by Le Cirque de Rêves, or the circus of dreams. 

The two primary antagonists, Hector and the man in the grey suit, are introduced as polarizing forces who incite the plot by initiating the challenge. The relationship between Hector and the man in the grey suit is not explained, but there is clear tension between them. The challenge itself is not fully explained even to the children who are participating in it, establishing it as the central mystery of the novel. Similarly, the magic that serves as a secret undercurrent to the whole of the plot is not clearly explained, allowing suspense and intrigue to develop. The man in the grey suit’s displeasure over the public way Hector performs magic and the way Celia can both break and repair things with her mind are the only introductions to the magic that defines the central conflict of the novel. The unknown ramifications of the challenge and the amorphous use of magic establish an ominous and mysterious tone. The question of how the challenge will impact the vulnerable but potentially powerful children at the novel’s center increases the suspense. 

The use of color helps set the scene for the entire novel in this first section and establishes a larger motif of color as a visual indicator in the book. In the opening section, “Anticipation,” the circus is remarkable for being black and white in contrast to the incandescent colors normally associated with circuses. The man in the grey suit is, first and foremost, a person associated with a color, not a name. That he is associated with grey, a color that ironically represents the absence of color, makes it so that the man in the grey suit can disappear in plain sight. This contrasts specifically with Hector’s outfits in these early chapters, which are comprised of black coattails and a shockingly white lining in his cape. Where the man in the grey suit can blend into the background with the colors he wears, Hector commands attention with his. As such, these chapters offer a strong introduction to what will be a recurring motif of color in the novel.  

Celia and Marco both begin the novel having been orphaned in some way, which establishes an immediate parallel between them. While Celia’s father is still alive, she undergoes the trauma of having lost a mother before the novel starts. Similarly, Marco lives at an orphanage, so he presumably has no guardian figures until he meets the man in the grey suit. While the circumstances behind why he’s there are unknown, what matters is that it puts him in a position to be adopted by the man in the grey suit in much the same way that Celia’s mother’s suicide is what opens her to being entangled in her father’s challenge. The implication of Marco and Celia’s vulnerability implies that their fates would be entirely different had either of them had a loving guardian to protect them from the magicians. There are contrasts between them as well as Celia displays a natural aptitude for magic from the very first time she meets her father while Marco has no apparent gifts during his brief introduction to the man in the grey suit. All of these parallels set them up as foils from the very beginning of the novel.