Friday, October 17, 2014

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas, a sojourn into the Victorian theatre world

Thomas’ follow-up to her wide-ranging romantic epic, The Kashmir Shawl (2013), takes place within the narrower confines of the Victorian theatrical world but is equally gripping. In 1885, when the charismatic Devil Wix meets Carlo Boldoni, a dwarf with undeniable magical skills, they become a dynamic team whose “box trick” electrifies audiences at a shabby venue in London’s Strand. Devil has grand ambitions, though—“to transform the Palmyra Theatre into a palace of illusions... it should be a place of wonderment.

The darkly compelling Devil, an unrepentant gambler with a haunted past, grabs readers’ attention from page one. Surrounding him is a varied cast that includes Heinrich Bayer, who unnervingly treats his mechanical dance partner like a real woman, and Eliza Dunlop, a smart, courageous artist’s model hoping for a starring role in Devil’s life. While the background details on stage magic and the theater business are captivating, Devil and Eliza’s ardent love story is the book’s emotional heart, and the ever-changing connections among all its intriguing performers fill it with genuine life and vitality.

The Illusionists was published by Overlook Press in hardcover in July ($27.95, 480pp).  This review first appeared in the June 15th issue of Booklist.

Some additional comments:

- Rosie Thomas is a prolific UK author who has worked with a variety of styles and settings.  Her earlier The Kashmir Shawl (reviewed here in 2012) won the Romantic Novelists' Association award for best epic romance, but The Illusionists isn't the same type of book.

- Although the British cover for The Illusionists (at right) is gorgeous and no doubt has the book flying off the shelves, I think the US version (at top) fits the tone of the story more appropriately.  Note the differences in color, subject matter, and font.

- The publisher's description for this novel has errors.  The novel takes place in the year 1885, not 1870, and Devil's partner is Carlo Boldoni, not Bonomi. The mistakes have crept into many other reviews, alas.  Naturally, the author's website has it right.


  1. What beautiful covers. I think I like the black one best, Sarah. Which do you like? Great review, btw. You made me curious to read this one!

    1. Thanks, Cynthia! I find the blue cover more aesthetically pleasing but think the darker one works better for the book even though I don't like it as much! So I'm conflicted.

  2. I have read this, with the black cover, loved it!

    1. Glad you agree. I had been meaning to repost this review for a while but kept forgetting to do so.