Illusion by Paula Volsky
Posted July 20, 2015on:
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.