Rosie Thomas is a bestselling novelist in the United Kingdom, her reputation built in large part on the globe-trotting romances she has researched by taking her own trips to far-flung corners of the world. With her latest novel, THE ILLUSIONISTS, Thomas stays firmly in her home country of England but takes the reader on a trip through time --- back to Victorian London and the exciting, glamorous but often marginalized world of the theater.
We first are introduced to Devil Wix, an aspiring entertainer and entrepreneur whose early attempts at conjuring are tied up with a tragedy in his past. Through a chance encounter during a bar brawl, Devil meets a pickpocketing dwarf named Carlo Bonomi, who has a talent for illusion and showmanship that equals his talent for thievery. The two of them happen upon a recently reopened theater named the Palmyra, home to a newly launched variety show. Others look at the Palmyra and see a rundown venue, home to second-rate acts. Devil, on the other hand, looks at it and dreams of running his own theater company there someday.
"Betrayals, buried secrets, trickery and violence all come into play in the story that Thomas tells here, but, in the end, the relationship between Devil and Eliza --- and Eliza's own struggle to define herself as a new kind of woman --- forms the real drama of the novel."
Devil and Carlo's first forays into the theater introduce them to a variety of memorable characters, especially Heinrich Bayer, who seems to possess an unnatural fondness for his beautiful dancing partner (and eerily lifelike automaton), Lucie. In their development of their first big trick, "The Execution of the Philosopher," they also encounter Jasper Button, a friend from Devil's youth (and one of the few who knows about his tragic youthful secret). Jasper, a talented artist, helps them construct the practical tools they need to pull off their big illusions. And, most importantly, through Jasper, Devil meets Eliza, a young woman on whom Jasper has romantic designs --- but who has her own ideas about what she herself wants and needs.
Eliza, although introduced relatively far into the novel, seems to be its emotional and thematic center. Both she and Devil are instantly attracted to one another, and Eliza spends some time devising how she (who finds occasional and semi-scandalous work as an artists' model) can become part of the Devil and Carlo's act. Eliza is far more than a pretty face, however --- she has her own ideas about what the act needs to succeed --- and if she and Devil are to make a go of their romance, he needs to shed his rapidly outmoded ideas about the role of women, or at least the role of this particular woman.
Betrayals, buried secrets, trickery and violence all come into play in the story that Thomas tells here, but, in the end, the relationship between Devil and Eliza --- and Eliza's own struggle to define herself as a new kind of woman --- forms the real drama of the novel. At times, the pacing of the story drags a little, and readers may find themselves wishing for, if not more action, swifter development of these ideas and themes. However, Thomas does form lively and memorable portraits of several dynamic characters, as well as a raucous depiction of their particular time and place. Staying true to the details of the Victorian theater scene while imbuing her characters, especially Eliza, with more modern sensibilities, Thomas takes a fresh approach to historical fiction that will appeal to her fans old and new.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 27, 2014