Though skeptical of this book at first, I wound up having a great time with it. Illusion is one of those books that recreates real historical events (the French Revolution, in this case) in an alternate world with a bit of magic, and this is a great example of why I love such novels: when done right, they provide the depth and texture of real history along with the adventure and possibility of a fantasy novel. And Illusion is excellent on both counts.
One of the book’s great strengths is its plot, focusing primarily on the life of a young noblewoman, Eliste vo Derrivalle. There’s a lot going on, and the pacing is just right, moving quickly enough to be gripping but taking long enough to fully develop the situations presented. And it’s unpredictable enough to be genuinely exciting; halfway through I realized I had no idea what would happen next, which is a rarity for me these days and kept me glued to the pages.
If you want that same experience, I suggest you stop reading this review now, because while I try to avoid spoilers, there will be plot details below.
The primary reason for my skepticism about this book is that it’s rather unsubtle, particularly at the beginning; the first chapter is as obvious about explaining the class divisions in Vonahr as it is in explaining the characters. Partly this seems to be mistrust of the audience's ability to read between the lines (which fades after the early chapters), but partly it’s just because there is so much going on in this story—covering two years of enormous and complex upheaval—that if Volsky never resorted to showing rather than telling, it would be a trilogy. I’m a big fan of standalone fantasy novels, so I reconciled myself to the occasional summary.
So, other than the great story, what I love about this book is the complex and realistic way it deals with class and revolution. The upper classes are neither excused nor demonized; the revolutionaries have a wide range of agendas, some better than others; no group is portrayed as a monolith, as even mobs are made up of individuals. People’s ideas and feelings don’t always match: there are nobles who appreciate democratic ideas, but only as abstractions; there are committed revolutionaries offended by poor treatment of the king. There are of course ideological divisions among the revolutionaries, with chilling consequences in practice. There are enormous changes to the society as a whole, beyond simply the effects on our protagonists.
The setting, meanwhile, is detailed and believable, from the provincial plantations to the lavish court to the streets of the capital. The chapters set on the streets are especially impressive: fantasy readers might anticipate a lucky break for our heroine, but instead the situation is handled with the utmost realism. By which I don’t mean these chapters are “gritty” in the sometimes gratuitous way of 21st century fantasy, but that Volsky captures what it would really be like to be homeless and penniless, rather than some romanticized fantasy version of it.
As for the characters. Eliste is a strong heroine who slowly grows and changes through the events of the novel. She comes from a privileged background and has picked up most of the prejudices of her class, which sees itself as a different species from ordinary mortals, but while she begins the book spoiled, we can see that she has a better nature. By the time the story is in full swing, it would be nearly impossible not to root for her. There’s less complexity to the secondary cast, though they work well enough in their roles: I enjoyed the proud and unbending Zeralenn, the kind and unworldly Uncle Quinz, the frivolous and mercenary Aurelie. The love interest, though, is annoying perfect, and the villain gets a lot of scenes in which he, of course, acts villainous (I have little patience for villain chapters in fantasy for this reason)—it is interesting, though, to see a fantasy villain who uses words and political maneuvers rather than might, and who has to win allies rather than having them automatically by virtue of his villainy.
Finally, I have some reservations about the end, particularly the romantic aspect (a small but important part of the book). Volsky seems to misidentify the biggest obstacle to the relationship as the characters’ unwillingness to admit their feelings, when the real problem is their lack of respect for each other. Eliste is mostly there by the end, but he’s still calling her “an impossible child.” Ew.
Overall, I found this book to be great fun, very readable and surprisingly complex, especially once you get past those first couple of chapters. An excellent example of historical fantasy, and one that left me wanting more from this author.