Friday, July 11, 2014

The Illusionists: A Novel

Title:  The Illusionists: A Novel
Author:  Rosie Thomas
Publication Information:  Overlook Hardcover. 2014. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1468309900 / 978-1468309904

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Devil well knew that apart from endless practice it was audacity, force of personality and the glamour of the stage itself that created magic out of mere mechanics."

A young man who reinvents himself as a showman with the name "Devil." A dwarf who is a performer and a thief. A young woman who who is quite modern and independent for the times. A friend who is master wax modeler. An inventor whose life revolves around the automatons he builds. These are some of the characters who populate The Illusionists.

Chance brings them together in London in the 1870s. From then on, their futures are inextricably linked. Devil's ambition is to one day own his own theater. Some share that dream with him; some wish to see him fail. Carlo is the performer who both fights and takes advantage of his physical differences in his search for fame. Eliza falls in love, but also works hard to forge a relationship that is a partnership between equals. Jasper has known Devil since childhood; he knows his background and his secrets. Jasper has chosen a path different than Devil's, different yet linked. Heinrich Bayer is a man of science who embodies his automaton creation with human feelings and relationships.

They come together at the Palmyra Theater, a decrepit concert halls that many including Devil wish to bring back to life as a performance theater. Interestingly, the name Palmyra is the name of an ancient city in what is now Syria. It is first mentioned in history in the Babylonian records from the second millennium BC. Its use in this book may be related to the fact that aside from the temple, the most notable remain found in Palmyra is a Roman theater dated to the first century AD. The reader is in fact introduced to the theater, "It was named the Palmyra, yes. That's a town in Arabia, you know. Something like Babylon. What a name, eh?" An interesting historical tidbit in what is otherwise a fanciful book.

The book has ups and downs, but not a major conclusion or event. It seems to simmer along. The characters move towards their goals; they encounter hardships and help. Successes and failures. Yet, a climax never develops. I waited for something more that never really came.

This book perhaps suffers from the comparison drawn for the book. I loved the first Rosie Thomas book I read, The Kashmir Shawl. That book enveloped me in its story and the emotion. Also, it surprised me in that it did not end up where expected. The Illusionists does not elicit the same response. The characters are much less sympathetic, and the story is much darker and slower. Also, this book has a much darker central theme; it is about ambition and how far people will go to accomplish a goal.

This book has been likened to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which I loved. For me, this book suffers by the comparison. For one, the imagery of The Night Circus is beautiful and magical; it creates and becomes the illusion of the book. The Illusionists is more about the characters and plot than the imagery. It is about the relationships, the intrigue, and the machinations, not just the illusion. As such, this book ends up with a much more pragmatic "down in the trenches" tone. The magic and the illusion in the book is there, but the book is much more about the mechanics behind the illusion. I guess I would have preferred the illusion.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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