A fictionalization of the French Revolution set in the invented kingdom of “Vonahr” and laced with a little bit of magic, Illusion is a gem of historical fantasy and ought to be a classic. Paula Volsky combines epic ideals, all-too-human characters, and lovely prose to create a book I couldn’t put down and will never forget.
The events of these turbulent times are seen through the eyes of a high-born young woman, Eliste vo Derrivalle. Eliste is at first a product of her society and upbringing, a spoiled brat who doesn’t think to question her class’s superiority over the serfs and working class. She is only willing to respect one serf, the brilliant Dref Zeenoson, whose talents belie everything Eliste has been taught about the inferiority of his kind. When Eliste’s father shows himself as a cruel master, and Dref defies him, only Eliste can save Dref from a terrible fate. She frees him and then tries to put this subversive incident out of her mind.
Eliste is appointed as a maid of honor to the Queen herself. She travels to the capital and is trained in courtly ways. But the fairy-tale court is not long for this world; a revolution is beginning. When Eliste loses everything she had taken for granted, she will have to learn to survive just like everyone else. But she will not always be without help — for there is one person who has never forgotten Eliste’s first act of heroism. This is an enthralling, heartbreaking, and suspenseful story, made all the better by its wonderfully drawn characters: the ingenious Dref, the stubbornly dignified grand dame Zeralenn, the incorrigibly shallow Aurelie, the so-sweet Kairthe, and even the terrifying Whiss v’Aleur, who lays waste to a nation to assuage his childhood feelings of inadequacy. But most of all, Eliste, who matures into a very different sort of woman than she had planned to become.
Illusion is not just a good fantasy. Though its setting is invented, it holds its own with the best sort of straight-up historical fiction, illuminating a place and time from its hovels to its palaces, as seen through the eyes of memorable characters. If you like fantasy, read Paula Volsky’s Illusion. If you don’t normally go for fantasy, but like a good romantic historical epic, suspend your disbelief about the magic and read it anyway. And if you’re like me, and like both genres — don’t hesitate another moment.