Review: The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

Every once in a while you find a book that hooks you from the very first page, and doesn't let go until long after you've finished it. The Illusionists is one of those books.

Usually I like to write my own plot synopsis, but the blurb encapsulates the story so well that I can't help but share it:

"London 1885. A shadowy and threatening place for a beautiful young woman of limited means. Eliza's choices lie between marriage and stifling domesticity or a downwards spiral to the streets. But Eliza is modern before her time and she won't compromise. One night at a run-down theatre she meets the charismatic Devil Wix - a born showman who is set on running his own company. His right-hand man is Carlo Boldoni, a irascible dwarf whose dazzling talent eclipses everything Devil tries to do. Forever linked to Devil by a boyhood tragedy is his friend Jasper Button, a gifted artist, and the fourth member of this strange crew is Heinrich, an enigmatic engineer. As the seductive but dangerous world of the Palmyra Theatre snares them all, it falls to Eliza to try to keep the peace between the men who love her. Too late, she realises that her fortune and her future depend on Devil and his companions. There is no escape... but to continue to risk her life, not just her heart. Offstage as well as on, Eliza must learn that magic takes on many forms. What is real, and what is merely an illusion?"

From the minute that I read the blurb for this novel I knew I was going to love it, and I was not disappointed. From the very first page you find yourself completely immersed in Victorian London; the sights, sounds and smells so well described you feel as if you are there walking alongside Devil as he goes about his daily life. The novel also provides a fascinating insight into the world of Victorian magic and illusion, revealing the amount of work behind the scenes that was necessary to make a show a success. From the guillotine to the famous bullet trick, you'll never look at magic in the same way again.

Devil Wix is a character worth a paragraph of his own. A brilliant showman, he is also witty and loveable, and I found myself willing him to succeed. Haunted by bad memories from his childhood, he is a man determined to prove his worth in the world, and along with his band of misfits he sets out to put on a show like no other.

The story moves at a relatively slow pace, and at just under five hundred pages it's a hefty novel, but one that is well worth taking your time over. The characters are compelling, darkly so at times, and I found myself looking forward to immersing myself in their world for an hour or so each evening. It's been a while since I've been so eager to find out how a book ends, yet at the same time so reluctant to say goodbye to the characters and the world that they inhabit.

Told in third person primarily from the perspectives of Devil and Eliza, it is clear from the start that this is their story, and you get the feeling that had the narrative reflected a different point of view, Carlos' or Jasper's in particular, we as readers would have a completely different perception of Devil. There are moments in the novel that you ought to hate him, yet you instantly forgive him, just as Eliza does.

As the Palmyra blossoms under Devil's ownership, the man himself undergoes a transformation from an opportunist showman into a husband, and eventually a father. I found myself falling more in love with him as the novel progressed - and the ending image of Devil with his son on his shoulders is purposely a million miles away from the Devil that we met on the first page. All of the characters mature and grow as the novel takes place over the span of twelve years, a long time to cover but so expertly managed that it never feels drawn out and all makes perfect sense.

The story is not unlike Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants in its themes of love triangles, misfits and showmanship, but at the same time it is entirely different from anything I have ever read before.The only predictable part of this novel was Devil and Eliza's relationship, but even this doesn't run smoothly, and as events begin to take a darker turn you find yourself wondering which characters will actually make it to the end.

5/5 stars: So much more than a love story, The Illusionists is a story of friendship and fellowship, of magic and illusion, of life and death. It is the most absorbing and atmospheric book that I have read this year by a mile! Read it and you won't be disappointed.


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