the Little Red Reviewer

Illusion by Paula Volsky

Posted on: July 20, 2015

illusion paula volskyIllusion by Paula Volsky

published in 1992

where I got it: paperback swap





If Robin Hobb wrote a mash-up of Les Miserables, Downton Abbey, and Memoirs of a Geisha, she might end up with something like Paula Volsky’s Illusion. Magic meets a society in turmoil, in which a bloody revolution is followed by chaos, all told from the point of view of a incredibly sheltered young woman.


Raised in wealth and privilege in the outer provinces, Eliste vo Derrivalle knows she’s above the common people. Because of course she is, she’s Exalted. A class above the wealthy and prosperous, the Exalted have a natural magic, and naturally, all other people exist to serve the Exalted. It’s not Eliste’s fault she’s been raised to believe this. Not only is it the culture in which she was raised, it is the culture of the entire Kingdom.


Shortly after the opening chapters, Eliste and her maid travel to the capital, where she is to live with her aunt and learn the finer qualities of being a noble lady. She’s been chosen to be a lady in waiting (of sorts) to the Queen. Being a lady in waiting is more along the lines of servitude, and accepting gifts and favors usually requires something in return. Eliste is so damn naive and in denial of what’s happening around her, that it is nearly tragically comic.


While Eliste is enjoying champagne and leftover pastries for lunch with the other ladies, a revolution is brewing. The second half of the novel takes a very dark turn, with a revolutionary leader whose fervor for a new world is only matched by his paranoia, and magical mechanical creatures that no one can control.

And the citizens have more than legitimate reasons to be angry, to want change. They’ve been trampled on, abused, told they are worthless. An entire culture has been built up around the belief that only the Exalted class is worth anything, that everyone else is just intelligent animals who exist to serve. You’d be pissed to.  At first, the King acquiesces to the demands of the revolutionary leaders. He is devoted to his citizens, wants only for their happiness.  But the revolutionary leadership is out for blood.


As a member of the Exalted class, Eliste, her cousin, and her aunt could be arrested at any moment. They go into hiding, which eventually leads to homelessness, which leads to Eliste having to be painfully honest with herself about what her prospects are. Even through her naivete, she knows she could freeze to death if she doesn’t find shelter. She could just as easily starve to death. If someone recognizes her, she could be beaten to death.


There’s a lot that makes Illusion different from your standard fantasy novel.  Most obviously, it takes place in a world that is experiencing intense culture and technological change. Guns have recently been invented. What worth is a magician when a sniper can just pick the person off from across the plaza? The populace has access to technology they never had before – guns, matches, public transportation, basic printing presses. Magic is still scary, but it no longer holds the weight it once held.


Also interesting was the choice to tell this story from the point of view of the spoiled rich girl. So often revolutionary tales are told by someone who has something gain. Eliste and her family only have things to lose – status, wealth, property. Eliste is the protagonist of this story, but she is not the heroine. This is 600 pages of awful things happening to her, things that are only her fault if you blame her for being born into wealth. Does she come to terms with what’s happening? Sort of.


More important than the world building and Eliste’s journey is the prose style of Illusion. Instead of the short, knife sharp stabs of much of the prose typically found in so many of the latest fantasy novels, Volsky employes a style that is heavy and ornamental, yet eloquent and architectural. Like a baroque building that at first looks over detailed and over-adorned, readers will be quick to realize that the long sentences and extra details are part of the foundation of what’s happening, not simply window dressing. The prose is gorgeous, but on the other hand, the dialog is occasionally so overdramatic as to border on silly.


I’ll admit I was a little confused about the title. Yes, magic is mostly used to create illusions, and Eliste’s uncle creates some incredible illusions to save people, but the title did more to pull me down a path of wrong guesses than anything else. Ah well, maybe that was the point of the title – to draw me away from what was really happening, to make it a little less painful.  Because the last third of the novel is damn painful to read. Like the stone facade of an imposing building, Illusion is a story that appears beautiful and graceful from far away, but the closer you get the more likely Eliste’s journey  will scrape you raw.


6 Responses to "Illusion by Paula Volsky"

Reblogged this on MDellert-dot-Com and commented:
An insightful and honest interview. Thanks to Little Red Reviewer!


Maybe “Illusion” is referring to how Eliste thought the world revolved around her… or no – that would be Delusion XD

Sounds like the type of story to play with my emotions. Wanting to see her fall off her throne, but then struggling whether or not to empathize when she does hit rock bottom.


Must read this again – I remember liking it, but finding it a bit shallow, and too much a direct retelling of real history. Don’t remember the prose style…

…thanks for calling my attention, though, to the way the moral sentiments are made confused here. The aristocratic society is clearly unjust (and naive, sheltered, etc), but the revolutionaries do some very horrible things to some relatively innocent people.
I wonder how the novel would be received in today’s climate: given that it’s basically taking the side of the privileged and showing how horrible it can get when those privileges are forceably abolished by those (seemingly) fighting for social justice… I have a feeling it would go down rather less well these days!


Illusion is one of my favorite books, and I just discovered it about 2 years back. I don’t really agree that the book takes the side of the privileged. I think, ultimately, it takes neither side. By the end of the story, the heroine undergoes quite a bit of change in personalty as well as changes in how she views society and the world. At the same time, the book also points out that extreme behaviors of those rebelling against the monarchy can lead to terror and anarchy. If it’s saying anything, it is that there has to be balance, that it is wrong to lean too heavily one way or the other. There are heavy prices to pay when that happens. The male lead character and his little group of believers basically represent the middle ground. In terms of how the people of Vonahr should move forward with their government, I think the book ends in a fairly good place. I really enjoy the story and the characters who populate the world of Illusion.


Good review – this one does intrigue me.
I suppose illusion could refer to a few things maybe? One of those titles that you really could bend to your own personal whim!
Lynn 😀


I bounced off this one years ago when it first came out, and at this point have no recollection why. It’s still on the shelf waiting for me to be ready to give it another try. 🙂

Instead of the short, knife sharp stabs of much of the prose typically found in so many of the latest fantasy novels, Volsky employes a style that is heavy and ornamental, yet eloquent and architectural.

YA and the current edgy fantasy do have that style, and while it makes for quick reading, sometimes I want something fancier, too.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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