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Book Review: Illusion by Paula Volsky

Illusionillusion
Paula Volsky

Bantam, 1991
★★★★☆

Like most dense high fantasies from the early 90s, Illusion takes some time to get started. It moves leisurely, taking us through a period of two years in a whopping 674 pages. But I didn’t mind the length and I didn’t mind the sometimes uneven pacing, and that was wholly because of the writing.

Before I get into anything else about this book, I have to stress the quality of the writing. Reading Illusion felt like reading a literary classic from the 19th century. Everything about the writing was so elegant, so old-world, so formal, so eloquent…from the very first page I was hooked, drawn into this world through the evocative and elegant syntax. I wish I could write like Paula Volsky. God, her writing is everything I aspire to. I was drinking it in as I read, sometimes going back and rereading various phrases just to marvel at the way she could make something so utterly simple sound so grand.
Illusion is heavily inspired by the French Revolution (and maybe the Russian Revolution as well). In the country of Vonahr, the privileged Exalted, some of whom possess magical powers, live lavishly and oppress the serfs who are tied to their estates. Tension is brewing in the country, however, thanks to rising taxes and food shortages, and the popular writings of revolutionaries criticizing the monarchy. Throughout the book we witness the start of the revolution, the fall of the monarchy, and the reign of terror that follows. We see all this mainly through the eyes of Eliste vo Derivalle, an Exalted young woman who starts out the book highly prejudiced against non-Exalted and slowly learns humility by the end of the novel.

As I said, the book is somewhat unevenly paced. We spend literally hundreds of pages setting up the world and getting Eliste to the capital of Vonahr, where the revolution will be centered, and while none of this is boring, it’s perhaps not as gripping as it might have been. While Eliste is blinded by her privilege, we the readers can feel the tension brewing and expect something to happen, and when it does it is fantastic – but then things slow down for another couple hundred pages. Then, when Eliste, caught in the throes of the reign of terror, is forced to go on the run, the pace become electrifying; I sped through three hundred pages in a single day. Then the pace slowed down again, then picked up in the last sixty or so pages. To be fair I’m sure it’s difficult to maintain tension and interest for nearly 700 pages, but perhaps the book could have been shorter.

Given the length of this book, I also wanted the worldbuilding to be stronger. We learn virtually nothing about Vonahr’s religion, history, or customs; the focus is very much on the present. We do learn a bit about Exalted magic, and here Volsky introduces an intriguing system that blends some science fiction with magic in the form of sentient machines that can communicate with Exalted. It’s a bit strange and not explained very specifically, but I think that was intentional. It was definitely interesting and vaguely unsettling to think of inanimate objects being imbued with consciousness.

What I liked about Eliste is that she’s a very ordinary sort of heroine. That is, she’s been raised as a privileged girl and she has all the skills (or lack thereof) to show for it. So she never wields swords or fights, but she still gets the chance to show how spirited she is when she fights off a would-be rapist and a guardsman hoping to drag her to prison. She is clever and resilient, and though she is dripping in entitlement, she’s not an inherently bad person: she’s sympathetic to the plight of serfs even as her ingrained prejudices tell her she shouldn’t be, and her maid is more of a friend whom she treats with respect. Her maid, Kairthe, is allowed character development of her own, and has one character-defining moment towards the end of the novel that nearly brought me to tears.

Two other fascinating female characters include Zeralenn, Eliste’s grandmother, and Aurelie, her cousin. Zeralenn, former mistress to two separate kings, is a formidable and stubborn woman clinging to her honor and her ideals. She reminds me a bit of Ned Stark, sacrificing her life for her honor, and while she is by no means someone to be admired in all her facets, as she is even more entitled and prejudiced than Eliste, she is nevertheless a fascinating character whose stoicism in the face of disaster is astonishing. Aurelie, meanwhile, is a chatty, somewhat air-headed teenager who will do whatever it takes to survive, including sacrificing her honor and her ideals. Though Eliste and Zeralenn scorn Aurelie for her decisions, it’s hard to hate the young woman for doing what it takes to survive (even if she is occasionally annoying).

Though Illusion does have some of the trappings of 90s fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised at how much agency Eliste was given despite Vonahr being a patriarchal society. That is, she can’t do much, but she’s resourceful with what she’s given. Volsky places Eliste through the ringer in a way few authors are willing to – I’m reminded a bit of George R.R. Martin – but Eliste handles herself extremely well, especially given her pampered lifestyle, and this leads her to being a thoroughly likable heroine.

Clearly, this book is not perfect, but I loved it anyway. I even bought myself a copy because I knew I would want to return to the writing again and perhaps try to learn from it. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey it took me on, the characters it introduced me to, and even the romance! I highly recommend this book for all lovers of fantasy and literary writing. This is definitely going to be one of my more memorable books of this year!

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