Smoke and mirrors – some novels about Magicians

Novels involving magicians – illusionists and conjurors rather than Gandalf types that is, score highly on my literary theme radar. I love all their skills, sleight of hand and misdirection, the optical illusions, all backed up by patter or a stage presence that fools us. Nowadays, of course, we exclaim in wonderment “how did they do that?” rather than simply believe it is real magic. I thought I’d share some of the literary magicians I’ve read. Links to my full reviews are in the titles.

The Spanish one – The Manual of Darkness by Enrique de Hériz

Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne, this book is subtitled ‘A Novel Steeped in the History of Magic’ and it certainly is that. The Manual of Darkness is a contemporary story set in Barcelona, and begins at the end of Victor Losa’s career as a magician. He is climbing the steps to the workshop of his teacher and mentor Mario Gálvan, who is holding a reception for his star pupil who has been crowned the ‘World’s Best Magician’ the previous week, when his vision takes a turn – the first hint that he will go blind soon due to a rare degenerative condition of his optic nerve. The novel takes a dual timeline to follow Victor’s life as a blind man and the therapist, Alicia, who tries to help him, and then goes back to Victor’s childhood, his father’s death and Victor’s subsequent career as a magician. The author builds in many references to the history of magic, and The Manual of Darkness is definitely one of the best, if not the best, novels about magicians that I’ve read.

The Irish one – Edith & Oliver by Michele Forbes

edith-oliver-michelle-forbes-weidenfeld-nicolson

Forbes’s second novel is really the wife’s tale. Set in the Edwardian music-hall era, Oliver is an ambitious young illusionist and hypnotist from Belfast, keen to make a name for himself and rise up the playbill, Edith is the replacement piano player – and they fall for each other, marrying and having kids. But Oliver finds it hard to make an impression on the circuit, he’s ‘too Irish’, his one man show is now going up against the new-fangled cinema. Times are changing and he can’t handle it. This sad novel shows the perils of the itinerant performer’s life and the effect on their families, and it’s rather depressing in its grim reality.

The pioneering female one – The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

This is set around the same time as the previous novel, but in Vaudeville in the USA. 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 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. Later, a real body is found in the box, and when Deputy Sheriff Virgil Holt runs Ada to ground, he arrests her, triple cuffs her to a chair, and asks her to tell him what happened. She tells her story – and it takes all night…

The Victorian One – The Equivoque Principle by Darren Craske

‘Equivocation’ is the magician’s art making an outcome seem intended when in reality there are several – but all of which are prepared for. The punter doesn’t know this of course, and so is fooled every time when a card is forced on him, or his mind ‘read’. It’s 1853, a serial killer is on the loose in London, and the murders happen to coincide with the arrival of a travelling circus run by conjuror Cornelius Quaint. Unfortunately Prometheus, the troupe’s mute strongman, picks the wrong pub to drink in and ends up in jail as the only suspect. Cornelius together with his valet Butter, and clairvoyant Madame Destine must find a way to free him. But from the moment they start investigating, it is clear that there are convoluted plots afoot involving events from Quaint’s past and that the killings are no coincidence. Huge fun.

The Assistant One – The Disappeance Boy by Neil Bartlett

Bartlett’s novel is a suspenseful slowburn story with a sting in its tail. Set in the 1950s when Variety filled the theatres, especially those at the end of the pier. From chorus girls to acrobats, crooners to comedians, every act has its place but needs to keep justifying its position on the Variety bill, plus ça change! A young boy with lop-sided legs from polio is saved from jumping off a bridge by a magician who trains him up to be his unseen assistant – the hidden tool that makes the tricks involving the seen beautiful assistant work. Some fabulous contrasts between the gloss of being onstage and the seediness of being backstage.

The real Houdini one – The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

It can be a tricky line to tread in making a real-life person one of the main players in a novel. If liberties with the documented record are taken, the author risks their work being derided for being not how it happened. This is where Galloway’s device of having an unreliable narrator tell a story about a real person allows him to get away with it. This is the story of Harry Houdini, as told by the man who killed him twice. Houdini used to challenge people to punch him as hard as they could on his stomach, but was stopped by a sucker punch which he hadn’t prepared for, and died from a ruptured appendix, or so the story goes. Strauss, our narrator, tells us that he was the man who delivered the fatal punch. This novel is quite magical, and exquisite in its execution of the illusions it weaves. Highly recommended.

The Feuding Ones – The Prestige by Christopher Priest

This is the one I must re-read, having read it pre-blog. Both the novel and the film adapted/directed from it by Christopher Nolan starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are absolutely brilliant – the emphases are slightly different. Set once again in the Victorian music-halls, two magicians feud – one a total showman, the other a perfectionist in the mechanics. A magician’s assistant and scientist Nikola Tesla are involved.

Recently I discovered that Priest wrote a short book about the making of the film, having been fascinated by the whole process from the sidelines. The Magic: the story of a film is available in hardback/paperback via Christopher Priest’s own website. I recently bought a copy from him, and he signed it for me. I can feel a triple-pronged post about both books and the film…

Magic also plays a part in these novels which I’ve read:

  • The karma oneThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – one of the four siblings goes on to become a stage magician.
  • The secretive oneThe Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston – the title character is secondary in this stifling story of Stella married to Martyn – who does things with doves!
  • The French oneThe Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore – A novel of French colonial politics – when a magician and his wife are sent to Algeria to prove their illusions are better than the Algerians’.
  • The Coney Island oneThe Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. At the fabled Dreamland, when the illusion is peeled away it reveals the ordinary behind the extraordinary for the inhabitants of what the protagonist’s father insists is not a freak show. 

And I have these to read in my TBR piles:

  • Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold – Yes I know, I’m behind on this one!
  • The Houdini Girl by Martyn Bedford
  • The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

And finally, a good digest of books about magicians including some I’ve not read or encountered before can be found here.

Please do share any books involving magicians that I’ve not mentioned – I’d love to find more to read.

22 thoughts on “Smoke and mirrors – some novels about Magicians

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Great post, Annabel, and thanks for reminding me of The Confabulist which I loved. I’ve seen the film of The Prestige (twice) but not read the book. The second viewing of the film was a wee bit overshadowed by remembering that fabulous ending, and my partner not remembering it!

  2. Kate Vane says:

    The second and third books in Chris Brookmyre’s Angelique de Xavier trilogy feature a magician who commits audacious crimes. The trilogy is full of spectacle and gloriously over the top.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Kate – I adored The Secret Art of Stealing, but haven’t managed to read further – but I have half a shelf full of Brookmyres to read, so I hope they’re on it. If I’d have realised, I’m sure I’d have read them by now, so thanks for that. 😀

  3. Calmgrove says:

    Oh what an excellent selection, Annabel, so many tempting titles! Thanks.

    While I’ve yet to read The Prestige Christopher Priest is obsessed by magicians as illusionists: illusion is at the heart of his early The Inverted World and it’s explicitly present in The Adjacent and implicitly in The Gradual, all of which I have read.

    Also Robertson Davies was intrigued by stage illusionists, throughout the Deptford Trilogy (but especially in Fifth Business) in which the boy Paul takes the stage name Magnus Eisengrim.

    I’m sure there are others I’ve read but these are two further examples that lodge in my mind.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Of course – how could I forget the Robertson Davies – but I read them so long ago… I should have been revisiting some along with Lori’s RD Reading, but as usual got waylaid.

      I’ve read The Adjacent, and have all his others on the shelf – now joined by his book on The Prestige film. (He was thoroughly charming in our e-mail correspondence, and said he’d visited my blog). 😀

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I really loved this book, and the present timeline where Victor is blind is so well done in particular. I discovered this novel via Stu’s blog.

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    Well, funnily enough, I just started one last night: The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett. I’m only a few pages in so I can’t tell you to what extent it’s actually about magic, though.

  5. Laura says:

    What a fun theme! I think I’ve only read one book about a magician (apart from The Immortalists) – Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant. I thought it was great, but IIRC, there wasn’t actually a lot about magicians in it. Of your picks, I’d be most keen to read The Confabulist or The Magician’s Lie.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Now I considered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but the supernatural edge makes them more than prestidigitators! Not read the Somnambulist – I’ll look it up. 🙂

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