Advanced reader copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.
Release date (UK): 13 January 2015
The Magician’s Lie was billed as being ‘Water For Elephants meets The Night Circus’. These are two of the best books I’ve read in the last year, and one of them has to be one of my favourite books ever, so I was pretty excited to get my hands on an advanced copy of this. Now, I don’t want to start on a negative, as this is a great book – but it didn’t quite live up to those two for me. That said, it’s still a gorgeous piece of historical fiction, with a touch of magic.
The Magician’s Lie opens with a beautiful first paragraph. I would usually avoid using quotes this long, but it’s just too good to cut down. I love it.
“Tonight, I will do the impossible.
The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true. I will show them worlds that never existed, events that never happened. I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world.”
This is how we are introduced to The Amazing Arden, aka Ada Bates, a 20-something in 1905, who happens to be “the most famed female illusionist in the world”. Acclaimed for her halved man trick – sawing up a man through a box and then appearing to heal him again – she seems to have a glittering career behind and ahead of her. But this night is the night everything changes, as after her show her husband is found dead in the same box as that used for the trick which sealed her fame.
Officer Holt is a police man who is on the brink of losing everything, after suffering a gunshot wound interrupting a robbery. He is as entranced as the rest of the audience when he watches the illusionist’s show, but when he is called back to the scene after, things take a different turn. On the way back home after a long night, Holt finds Arden on the run and immediately seizes her, seeing her arrest as his last chance to gain esteem with a police force who are disillusioned with his career prospects He holds her captive until the morning, and over the night he tries to wean a confession out of her. What he gets instead is a life story.
Arden proclaims her innocence and refuses to just talk about the night of the murder. Instead she insists she must tell her whole story. And so, over one night in a quiet police station, a captivating, tragic and dramatic life story unfolds.
Arden’s story is beautifully told and gripping. Mcallister weaves real-life history – incorporating the famous female magician Adelaide Herrmann as Arden’s mentor and the tragic Iroquois Theatre Fire at a turning point in the young magician’s life – alongside subtle fantasy. Her story has a culpable villain in the form of the abusive cousin Ray, a sociopath who enjoys hurting himself and others under the delusion that he has the power to heal them. Whenever Ray crops up the reader knows something bad is afoot, and the story carries a subtle sense of paranoia as, even when Arden is at the height of her fame, she can never quite escape the demons of her past or the fear of her future.
As well as being a murder mystery, this story is undoubtedly a romance. As Arden tells her story from a young age, we experience not only the trauma of her past but also the aching of her first love and how a young romance grows into a long-term love. “And when I was with him, I learned the compromises of intimacy, the way the pillow you fall asleep on disappears in the night sometimes, the way the other person’s smell becomes more familiar to you than your own, the way you learn the phrases they repeat and the foods they avoid and in which direction their hair grows.”
Arden’s story is intercepted with chapters from Holt’s point of view, which bring us back to present day 1905, as the two talk through the night. Holt throws everything Arden tells him under the spotlight, searching for indescrepencies in the story, and reminding the reader that she is not to be trusted. It adds another layer to the story, as it’s easy to get swept up in the romance, tragedy and glamour of Arden’s tale, and forget that we are hearing the story of a suspected murderer. It will keep you guessing until the very end and, whilst the ending wasn’t entirely what I was expecting, the compelling journey to get there was unforgettable.