In late Victorian and early Edwardian England, stage magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier form a rivalry with each other that eventually affects not only them, but also their descendents.
Plot summaries for this book aren't particularly satisfying, as the bulk of the book is in its structure. We begin with the descendents finding out more about their magician ancestors via diaries, and Alfred Borden's begins by telling you he is performaing a magic trick with his very narrative. Angier's diaries, not written for potential publication, don't have quite the same sense of illusion and mystery about them until the final bits.
I read this after I had seen the movie, so I already knew the major revelations. While I liked the additional details in the book, particularly about stagecraft and magic, the movie version of the characters and motivations resonated more with me. As such, I'm not sure how much of my dissatisfaction from the book stems from the book itself, and how much stems from comparison to the movie.
I was particularly irritated by the framing device of the descendents, given how Priest developed it. Due to mentions of the Borden-Angier feud lasting for generations, I wanted to see more of how both men affected their families. Instead, the bulk of the novel is still about Borden and Angier's personal lives, so much so that the single feud-like event from later on read as completely random to me. There is no sense of why the feud extends beyond Borden and Angier, save the fact that Priest needs to wrap up his story thematically.
The other bit that bothered me was how pointless the feud felt. Obviously, I know it should feel pointless to anyone but the two men involved, but the sense of urgency and obsession and rising stakes from the movie is completely missing. Instead, my impression was that either man could have walked away at any time, not out of better judgment, but out of simple ennui, which doesn't seem to be the best end to a multi-generation feud. I'm fine with the feud itself feeling petty and stupid, but it seemed that both Borden and Angier thought so as well at quite a few points in the narrative, which made me just want to shake them and ask them why they kept it going outside of "needed to further the plot." I was also intrigued by the bits of internal conflict hinted at in Borden's narrative, and I actually think I would have rather read a book about that than about the Borden-Angier conflict.
Finally, I have no idea what happened in the last two pages or so.
Spoilers for book AND movie
So has Angier just been lurking around the mansion basement for several decades? What did he do? Did the rest of the family know? For a bit, I thought he might have continually staged himself as the Earl of Coldenham 14, 15, 16, etc. by conveniently dying off every so often, since that was the only explanation I could think of for Kate's father throwing Nicky into the machine. Otherwise, that level of hatred and maliciousness felt extremely out of place. We get very little about the generations in between to explain why Clive Borden may have wanted to apologize, or why Kate's father would be angry about it. Is it the Bordens' desire to figure out the trick?
The final reveal of the vault of "prestige materials" was appropriately creepy, as was the roundabout way Angier talked about the prestige materials and his plans for them. I guess my main issue is that I never felt that Angier was sufficiently motivated to go to such lengths for a magic trick. We get a little about Julia pushing him back into the world of magic, as well as his desire to figure out what makes The New Transported Man work, but the bulk of his diary read to me as though magic were something he could put down and not think about, which doesn't fit the amount of energy and money he pours into the Tesla machine. Whereas the movie has Angier pushing Olivia away to spy on Borden, the book making the spying Olivia's idea lessens the impact of Angier's desire to know Borden's tricks.
Borden, on the other hand, I would believe that of. The overarching reach of the Pact, the disagreement between the Bordens, the conflict between life with Sarah and life with Olivia... all that I found much more fascinating. It also felt as though one twin was more pulled toward a non-magic life, as opposed to the other, who found the trick of the prestige of the highest importance and not trivial at all, and that's the conflict I was most interested in.
I was also expecting more about the thread of twins in the Borden line, given Andrew's intial narration, Borden's own lives, and the fact that his children with Sarah are twins.
Overall, Priest's puzzle box is intriguing and satisfying as a puzzle, but it didn't work that well for me as a story, at least in comparison with the movie. I probably would have been much more impressed had I read it first.
I am going to assume that there are spoilers for both book AND movie in the comments, since it's pretty difficult to discuss either without spoilers.
Links (assume spoilers!):
- coffeeandink on book and film
- Gary Westfahl's review of the film, with comparisons to the book, most of which I disagree with
- instant_fanzine discussion of the book
- kate_nepveu's thoughts
Any other links? I think I read them when the movie came out in 2006 (it was that long ago?!), but it'd be interesting to reread now that I've read the novel.
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