There is something rather bold about naming your Victorian protagonist Devil, and that sets the tone for the premise of Rosie Thomas’s novel, The Illusionists. Add to the mix a bad-tempered dwarf called Carlo Bonomi, a Swiss inventor named Heinrich who becomes obsessed with his creations of automata — mechanical women with rubber skin — and you’ve got yourself the beginnings of quite a tale. But The Illusionists falls short of the magic it promises and readers may struggle to sit through Devil’s performance.
We first meet Devil roaming the streets in want of a drink and a job. Instead, he finds a dwarf, dressed as a child and picking pockets with more skill than Devil has ever seen. The dwarf is Carlo Bonomi, a fellow illusionist and showman. Devil persuades Carlo to embark on a gory double-act with him, and the pair are soon hired by the abhorrent Jacko Grady, owner of the run-down Palmyra Theatre.
Enter Eliza, an aspiring actress who is leagues ahead of her time in her desire for independence and freedom as a woman. She cannot fathom the subservient life her sister has chosen with her practical marriage and uninspiring husband. Now, this is where I have my first gripe with the novel. Eliza is the promised star of the show on the book’s blur, yet she doesn’t fully appear into the story until a good few chapters in. It seemed this book was not about a woman going against society’s conventions as promised, but the rather less exciting rise and fall of the Palmyra Theatre itself, and Devil’s single-minded pursuit of gaining its ownership.
Devil gradually draws more and more performers into the show at the Palmyra. As well as himself and Carlo, Eliza comes on board, as does Devil’s childhood friend Jasper, and an intense Swiss inventor, Heinrich. Every single one of these men is in love with Eliza. Every. Single. One. This works well with the creepy Heinrich (and this horror-vibe subplot was, in fact, one of the novel’s saving graces), but grew tiresome after the third character succumbed to her charms. She’s a modern lady. She’s desirable. We get it already.
The Illusionists did pick up in its second third, and had it culminated in Part II, it would’ve been a much better story. But Thomas persevered for another third that was wholly unnecessary and stunted the novel’s pacing. What could’ve been an unsettling but ultimately triumphant ending turned into a rambling continuation of a story that had run out of steam.
What was successful was the novel’s depiction of a seedy Victorian London, from its dancehalls to its dingy pubs and theatres. The Jack the Ripper murders provide an uneasy backdrop to the action, working particularly well with the dark storyline of Heinrich, the inventor obsessed with his female automatons. This was where the story was at its most fantastical, despite the magic and illusion on show at the Palmyra Theatre. Heinrich’s automatons function via meticulously complicated mechanics, and the inventor himself seems to blur the lines between reality and his creations, as he cannot comprehend that Eliza has her own free will and will not be manipulated as his rubber dolls will. His pursuit to attain her culminates in a thrilling climax that would’ve been perfectly place to end the novel.
Ultimately it is loose plotting that is The Illusionist’s downfall, and the false promise of a story that would centre around a ballsy Victorian woman ahead of her time. Whilst a vivid Victorian London is expertly evoked, the book doesn’t quite have the magic to pull off the show.
A sequel, Daughter of the House, was published last year.