Friday, February 27, 2015

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

Love of the theatre brought them together.  There was Devil Wix, handsome and charming and full of ambition to own the best magical show in London.  Carlo Bonomi was his magical act partner, an ill-tempered dwarf who Devil met when he saw Carlo using his skills to pickpocket in a crowd.  Jason Button is Devil's childhood friend and rival.  Heinrich Bayer is a scientist and inventor, fascinated with the art of automata; his favorite a lifesize dancing doll.  Then there is Eliza Dunlop.  She isn't content with the staid life of a lady in Victorian England.  She starts as an artists' model but when she meets the men she sees a way to fulfill her dreams of being an actress.  Together they start as acts at the Palmyra Theatre.

Devil isn't content to be just an act.  The owner is mercenary and grasping and Devil is determined to take the Palmyra from him and make it what it should be, rather than just another second-rate theatre.  He finds a way to oust the owner and then the group becomes the new owners and the Palmyra becomes the premier theatre destination for magical acts.  Over the years, players come and go but the group remains the driving force behind the theatre's success.

But nature abhors a stasis and fissures start to work below the theatre's veneer.  All of the men are in love with Eliza in various ways, but she can give her favors to only one.  The resulting tension starts to show up other ways in which the troupe is at odds and the everyday jealousies and slights of theatre life start to loom large.  Can the group overcome the tensions and rivalries to continue the tradition of excellence that makes the Palmyra the premiere theatre?

Rosie Thomas has written a historical fiction that explores life in Victorian England.  The love of theatre and showmanship is contrasted with the social rigidity of that society and the group's tensions and disagreements propel the action over the years.  The characters are unforgettable and the reader is swept along with a birds-eye view of the backstage life of a theatre.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

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