Saturday, January 24, 2015

Greer Macallister's The Magician's Lie, an involving tale of deception, female agency, and fin-de-siècle magic

A while back, in the comments I made following my review of Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola, I confessed that I don’t usually go for novels about circuses and fairs and things of that nature. Although I loved that particular book.

Then I read and reviewed Rosie Thomas’ The Illusionists, about a troupe of magicians in Victorian London, and enjoyed that one, too.

Now, when presented with a 3rd recent historical novel about magic and magicians, I had no qualms about picking it up, and I’m very glad I did. The storyline grabbed me from the first paragraph, and the pacing and narrative tension remained strong through the end. Although I had correctly guessed part of the conclusion, other aspects were a surprise.

Guess it’s time for me to revisit my reading preferences at least in terms of magicians.  (I still don't like circuses.)

Set amid the alluring world of stage magic at the turn of the 20th century, Greer Macallister’s The Magician’s Lie is a novel about reality and illusion, love and betrayal, wealth and destitution, confidence and fear, truth and deception – and how quickly one can transform into the other.

The premise is thus. In Waterloo, Iowa, one evening in 1905, hours after the renowned female magician known as the Amazing Arden performs a unique variation on her controversial “Halved Man” trick, the bloodied body of a man – her husband – is found stuffed into a smashed wooden container beneath the stage. Had she killed him before the crowd as part of her act? Seizing the opportunity, Virgil Holt, a down-on-his-luck police officer from the nearby town of Janesville, catches the beautiful young woman during her planned escape and carts her into the station for questioning.

Arden claims not to know that anyone was murdered, but Holt doesn’t believe her. She insists he’ll be killing her if he doesn’t let her go. Not convinced, but willing to listen, he handcuffs her wrists to a chair to prevent her from fleeing and demands to know the truth.

And so she spins a tale about her life and career that takes her from Tennessee farm country to the vaudeville circuit and on to national fame as a brilliant and daring performer. (There’s plenty more, but I won’t be giving it away.) Is it fact or fancy or some of each? Either way, her story is so diverting that it’s easy to forget the author behind the curtain.

Edgy and exciting, The Magician’s Lie is a fast-moving historical novel that I would also recommend as a “gateway book” for introducing historical fiction to newcomers. Arden’s voice is fresh, appealing, and (seemingly) sympathetic. Without overburdening them with details, Macallister offers readers many informative new tidbits, such as the inner workings of specific magic tricks. She also presents the life of an itinerant performer in the late 19th century from an unusual viewpoint: that of a woman.

In the “conversation with the author” at the end (please save it until later if you plan to read the book!), Macallister says that since she was new to historical fiction, the writing process took about five years from initial idea to final draft. It may have required a lot of time and effort, but I think she got the difficult balance of fact and fiction pretty much right.

The Magician’s Lie is published by Sourcebooks Landmark this month (312pp, $23.99 hardcover, $9.60 on Kindle). It was on the LibraryReads list for January. I picked it up as an ARC at the publisher’s BEA booth last summer.


  1. Some years back there seemed to be a flurry of historical novels about magicians and / or magicians' wives, if I'm recalling correctly.

    I don't mind circuses so much, but carnivals as the location for a novel, book or television program -- cannot abide. With the exception! of the one Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous, which I love. :)

    Love, C.

    1. That sounds right - there was The Night Circus more recently, plus Carter Beats the Devil, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which I couldn't get through), plus the bestseller Water for Elephants.

      I don't like carnivals either and can't tolerate novels about clowns or sideshow acts. Circus novels bother me because they often show animals being mistreated, and as an advocate of animal rescue, I read enough about that in real life.

      I haven't heard of Masked and Anonymous but will check it out!

  2. I really enjoyed this one, too. You can't go wrong with the Scheherezade structure, especially when you're telling a story about an illusionist!

    1. I agree. And I completely forgot to mention how much I liked the back-and-forth structure, which had a way of adding to the suspense.

  3. A new one for me. Keeping an Open mind on circuses and carnivals - this one Will be a good one for me.

    1. Hope you'll enjoy it. And maybe one of these days I'll give a novel set in a circus a try again (skimming over any disturbing aspects if necessary).