Saturday, April 5, 2014

Born of Illusion by Teri Brown

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: April 4, 2014

A gifted illusionist, Anna assists her mother, the renowned medium Marguerite Van Housen, in her stage show and séances, easily navigating the underground world of magicians, mediums, and mentalists in 1920’s New York. As the illegitimate daughter of Harry Houdini—or so Marguerite claims—sleight of hand illusions have never been a challenge for Anna. The real trick is keeping her own gifts secret from her opportunistic mother. Because while Marguerite’s own powers may be a sham, Anna possesses a true ability to sense people’s feelings and foretell the future. But as Anna’s powers intensify, she begins to experience frightening visions of her mother in peril, which leads her to explore the powers she’s tried so long to hide. And when a mysterious young man named Cole moves into the flat downstairs, introducing Anna to a secret society that studies people with gifts like hers, she is forced to confront her past and rethink everything she’s ever known. Is her mother truly in danger, or are Anna’s visions merely illusion? And could the great Houdini really be her father, or is it just another of Marguerite’s tricks?

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Harry Houdini
Teri Brown's Born of Illusion caught my eye soon after it was published, not for its content, but for its cover. Reminiscent of Nicole Kidman's entrance in Moulin Rouge, the image stuck with me and ultimately prompted my decision to include the title in my 2014 Must Read mini-challenge. One of eighteen, Born of Illusion is the fourth title I've knocked from the exclusive list and while I wasn't blown away by the piece, I can't say it was entirely disappointing. 

Brown's treatment of Anna's profession is, I think, the strongest aspect of the narrative. The mechanics of each illusion are clearly defined, offering rare insight to the magician's trade while simultaneously illustrating the inventiveness of its early practitioners. 

I was equally intrigued by Houdini's enigmatic role in the narrative, the mystery surrounding the Society for Psychical Research, and Anna's convoluted relationship with her mother. These unconventional plot points worked in Brown's favor and I found the creativity she exerted drawing them together highly appealing.

Unfortunately, the author's inventiveness is undermined by mediocre presentation and structure. The story's antagonist is blatantly obvious from the start despite the author's attempt at misdirection, which mightn't have been so bad if it didn't render the finale utterly anticlimactic. 

The book also left much to be desired atmospherically. The author's depiction of New York is wholly unremarkable, but I was intensely frustrated by Brown's illustration of its club scene. Like Allison Pittman, I felt Brown missed the mark historically, offering readers a laughably stereotypical and campy portrait of the jazz age.

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I stare down at a handbill I’d picked up in San Francisco when the circus was doing a California tour. Harry Houdini’s fierce eyes stare back at me. “Did I get this curse from you?” I whisper to the most famous magician and escape artist in the world.
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Vicki W said...

I immediately made the Moulin Rouge connection too when I saw the cover. Gorgeous! I've not heard of this book before, but I'm definitely adding it to my to-read list :)

Anonymous said...

Woot! Love that movie.

The book has a sequel and there is a novella between the two installments. I'm curious to read them too.