Completed 3/7/2023, Reviewed 3/8/2023
Like the sleight of hand of Victorian magicians, this book began as one thing and turned into something else entirely. On the surface, and through most of the narrative, this book appears to be about a rivalry between two magicians in Victorian England who sabotage each other during performances. It of course begins with good intentions and a misunderstanding and then continues their whole lives. But then the end goes off in an unexpected direction and the book turns into a horror novel. Priest is quite prolific in the UK, winning many awards across Europe. This, however, is I think his only book to win something that’s a little less parochial. It won the 1996 World Fantasy Award.
This book begins with a present day adopted man finding out about the history of his birth-ancestors, meaning his natural great-great-grandfather, Alfred Borden. It’s contained in a published but little circulated memoir of his life as a magician performing in the Victorian era. The memoir was supposed to be about revealing the secrets of his tricks, including one that got him the most fame. In actuality, it was about an ongoing sabotage war with another major performing magician of the era, Rupert Angier. The book is told from different perspectives: from Andrew, Borden’s descendant, then from Borden’s memoir. Then from Kate Angier, Rupert’s descendant, then from Rupert’s own diary. And it ends with Andrew and Kate piecing together what happened to Andrew’s twin before he was adopted.
I found the book to be okay through the first half, that is, with Borden telling his side of the story. It became more interesting when it switched to Rupert’s diary. This way, we were getting two different perspectives of the same events by two unreliable narrators. In general, I don’t care much for stories or movies about 19th century magicians and spiritualists. I only occasionally enjoy magic shows. But getting the two sides of the story made it very interesting from a human interaction perspective. At first I didn’t like either of the magicians, but then slowly developed empathy for both as they told their stories.
The women in the book were interesting. They weren’t flighty, swoony women of the period. They had some substance to them. I particularly liked Rupert’s wife, as she was in show business as well. So she already was not an ordinary Victorian wife. Other women move in and out of the picture as well, magician’s assistants and lovers, and I was pretty impressed by them as well.
One character of interest was the introduction of Nikola Tesla. He shows up as someone who can help with designing a magic trick of transportation. I don’t know how accurate this depiction was, but I enjoyed it. He was intense, flighty, and money-centric, as it cost a lot of money to make the machines that generated electricity. By the time Rupert meets him, I was cheering Rupert on and was as frustrated with Tesla as Rupert.
I give this book four stars out of five. I liked Priest’s prose and am interested to see what his other award winners are like. Eventually, I’ll get around to them. I’d also now like to see the Christopher Nolan film adaptation to see how Nolan turned these memoirs into action, and then if he kept the ending as written.