An apology and a book review: ‘The Illusionists’ by Rosie Thomas [2014]

First off, I have to apologise profusely for my lack of activity both here and on twitter: in my last few weeks of University (EVER) I have been focusing on making the most of it before I move back home and five hours away from all my best friends! It’s been absolutely hectic finding out the results of my degree (2:1 in English Literature with Creative Writing), taking a two day trip to Dublin with my best friends, going to loads of parties and trying to complete some job applications. In between all that I have found time to read but unfortunately not to review! After my 21st Birthday on the 10th July and graduation on the 12th I’ll hopefully be around a lot more and able to get this blog going.

With that out of the way – I have a book to review! I have been reading ‘The Illusionists’ by Rosie Thomas and there are so many things I want to say about it, but I’ll try to keep it short.

The Illusionists

BLURB: As a turbulent and change-filled century draws to a close, there has never been a better time to alter your fortune. But for a beautiful young woman of limited means, Eliza’s choices appear to lie between the stifling domesticity of marriage or a downwards spiral to the streets – no matter how determined she is to forge her own path.

One night at a run-down theatre, she meets the charismatic Devil Wix – showman, master of illusion, fickle friend. Drawn into his circle, Eliza becomes the catalyst of change for his colleagues – a dwarf, an eccentric engineer and an artist – as well as Devil himself. And as Eliza embarks on a dangerous adventure, she must decide which path to choose, and how far she should go when she holds all their lives in her hands.

I found this book to be gripping and exciting; I sped through it in a matter of days. It almost feels like a secret glimpse into the underworld of London – you drink it all in and try to imagine every detail for yourself.

The principal strength of this novel, in my opinion, is the characterisation. These characters are real, tangible protagonists who make you laugh and make you cry. I could feel all their emotions, drives and motives as I was reading. Carlo is so brutal and raw that you almost feel uncomfortable when you get a glimpse into his mind, like you’re reading someone’s diary, something that I think any author would aspire to. Devil, our anti-hero, is particularly problematic. Reading along I found myself inexplicably attracted to him but I hated many of the decisions he made. I disliked him, but I loved to read him. Heinrich by contrast is incredibly, beautifully creepy in his sinister workshop.

The second positive that I picked up from this book is how realistic it is. I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about Eliza potentially reneging on her views and morals in order to pursue Devil, but I think that it is important to remember the time-frame that this book spans: although she might read like a flake now, for the late 1800s Eliza is incredibly progressive. She makes compromises, certainly, and no one can credit this book with a sunshine, rainbows and unicorns happy ending, but all that says is that the novel is not idealistic. It acknowledges and addresses actual issues and events of the time. The ending is loaded with bittersweet success and regret. If it had gone another way I would have liked it, but I would have accepted it as a book with a happy ending rather than a book with a realistic ending, and I enjoyed the sense that this was a glimpse into potentially real situations.

Having said that, I did think there was a lot going on. Many different stories were all woven together, which can often be a success, but the entirety of this novel did feel a bit crammed in as we followed numerous different strands of thought. To cover this there was also several jumps through time, which seemed to skip some important events. The book could easily be split into two and I happily would have followed the characters through their journey at a slower pace. As it is, it becomes a little more difficult to understand the changes in the characters from the beginning to the end of the novel.

Overall I think this novel is a tremendous success, and I have the sequel ‘Daughter of the House’ on my list. The weight of the novel lies in its pivotal time frame and one can tell that it is pulling from several different monumental changes: technology, women’s rights and more. Although I had my gripes with them, the characters are sublimely written and I am still thinking about the charismatic, morally ambiguous Devil. The plot is fascinating and I didn’t want to stop reading at all. I wish there was more!


One thought on “An apology and a book review: ‘The Illusionists’ by Rosie Thomas [2014]

  1. […] I recently finished reading ‘The Illusionists’ by Rosie Thomas and it was one of the best novels I’ve read. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in historical fiction and even to some people that don’t – I have seen a few negative comments about this book but you can see my reasoning for that in my recently posted review:… […]


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