Synopsis: Two world-class prestidigitators feud each other in fin-de-siècle London. Rupert Angier is a disinherited aristocrat starting his career with lucrative séances for grieving families. Alfred Borden is his opponent, a creative working-class magician frustrated by Angier’s unethical exploitations.
The rivalry takes off when Alfred confronts Rupert in one of his seances, hurting Rupert’s pregnant wife inadvertently. The duel is sometimes funny in the form of pranks or exposures, other times lethally dangerous.
Their center piece magic trick is a teleportation act called “The New Transported Man” and “The Flash”, where they both excel each other and the whole world eagerly wants to watch their performances. The effect looks similar but they don’t know about the other’s exact technique. Is it a double, is it a technical device based on electricity?
Review: A frame story involves the opponents’ grandchildren who uncover their ancestors’ mysteries mostly by reading through their diaries.
The story is told in epistolary format, starting with Alfred’s point-of-view. Then, nearly the same story is retold through Rupert’s diary. Turns out, they have narrate completely different truths, as one could expect from illusionists.
None of the main protagonists is likable, both accumulate a pile of flaws, erratic behavious. Not only in their feud but also in their private lifes.
Now, what about that strange categorization of “SF Fantasy Horror”? First of all, it starts like a fantasy story. There are magicians, right? Not the fireball-wielding ones, of course. But some of their behaviour and their ultimate trick could count as real magic indeed.
Why would Gollancz publish the novel among their SF Masterworks? That could only be explained if there weren’t “real” magic involved but some technical device driving “The Flash”. Also, there is a lot of then brand new technology – electricity fascinated people at the end of 19th century. In fact, electricity brought forth a huge amount of startup companies and innovations just like in our contemporary times. One of the crazier and fascinating players in the field, Nikola Tesla, gives an appearance in the story.
The last category Horror builds up only very slowly. I won’t reveal too much by saying that only towards the end, the full dimension of outrageous means is exposed.
Priest doesn’t explain everything in the involved mystery, the reader has to puzzle partly their way through the connections. Also, there are some open ends leaving much to muse after reading.
I can’t praise this novel more than stating that it’s comparable eye-to-eye to Gene Wolfe’s best works, e.g. his phenomenal “Peace” (review). There is also a film adaption for it by Christopher Nolan with a great line-up of stars: Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier, Christian Bale as Alfred Borden; add to that Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie as Tesla. I’ll have to look at that the next couple of days!
Meta: It won the World Fantasy Award.