Smoke, mirrors and a little real magic…

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

Books about magicians, circuses, music hall and vaudeville are irresistible to me – especially those featuring magicians.  I recently reviewed Edith and Oliver by Michelle Forbes (click here), which is set in the British Edwardian music-hall and features an ambitious young magician from Belfast. England had its music-hall tradition of variety shows, America’s equivalent was Vaudeville and this is where The Magician’s Lie is set, around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th.

The story begins in 1905 as the magician is being got ready for her show – yes, her show:

I’m escorted to the stage, as I always am, another set of footfalls moving exactly in concert with mine.
This is the routine now, every night.
This is the life of the most famed female illusionist in the world, every nearly the only one in existence, the life I have made for myself through luck and talent and sheer will. This is the life I have decided to leave behind. This is the life I will end.
Tonight, I will escape my torturer, once and for all time.
Tonight, I will kill him.

The Amazing Arden is famed for being the only woman magician in the world to saw a man in half. Her staging is radical – and this night she uses an ax, not a saw. The man in the box screams, there are puddles of fake blood – the audience is astounded. The magician disappears in a puff of smoke, only to reappear at the back with the man from the box. The crowd’s relief is palpable.

In the audience that night had been the Sheriff and his friend Virgil Holt, the deputy sheriff from a nearby town. They are called back to the theatre from the tavern to see a dead body in the magician’s box. Riding home, Virgil stops for food at a restaurant, only to find, and arrest, the now wanted magician. He opts to take her to his nearby police station rather than back to the city as it is late. He triple cuffs her to a chair and asks her to tell him what happened. She tells her story – and it takes all night.

Ada’s begins in 1892 when she was twelve, on the farm in Iowa where she lives with her mother, her late stepfather’s uncle and his son Ray. Ada is a promising dancer, and her mother manages to get an audition for her with a famed ballet teacher who is visiting the Vanderbilts at their Biltmore estate, but Ray scuppers her plan by injuring her foot so she can’t dance. Ray taunts Ada and eventually she escapes, or so she thinks. For a while she works as a maid at Biltmore, before falling for a young gardener called Clyde – and they set off for New York. She falls out with Clyde, but becomes a dancer in a variety show where she is spotted by Adelaide Herrmann, the famous magician and goes to work for her in her show. Ada learns the magic business and when Adelaide retires she takes over the show becoming the Amazing Arden, and Clyde comes back into the picture.

More I will not say, because I do not want to ruin the suspense which builds up from the very first pages. Chapters alternate between the present and past as Ada/Arden tells her story. All the while, she is playing – never unkindly, with young Virgil who desperately wants her confession. He finds it hard to believe that this beautiful young woman in handcuffs before him killed a man – is he being misdirected?  I really felt for Virgil.

We get a wonderful feel for the life of a successful touring show. Adelaide Herrmann was a real magician, a trailblazer for women, and Macallister takes this and makes Ada/Arden one of the next generation of strong women in the entertainment business.  Adelaide and Ada’s success paints a very different picture to the hardships of Forbes’s Edith and Oliver!

If I had one quibble with this fabulous novel, it would be Macallister’s decision to give Ada a little bit of real magic. Ada can heal herself and over the years this ability helps her regain her fitness  every time adversity intervenes. I felt the novel didn’t need it, but I can forgive it – for her body may heal, but the emotional scars remain.

This novel had a super pace which together with the suspense made for a compelling read. Ada is a heroine like no other! (9/10)

Source: Publisher – thank you.

Greer Macallister, The Magician’s Lie (Legend Press, Sept) paperback, 320 pages.

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