Sunday, September 25, 2016

Illusion by Paula Volsky

How do I even begin to sing the praises of this marvelous book? ILLUSION - the title and cover might make you think that you're embarking on some farcical, fanciful, Dungeons & Dragons-like fantasy adventure filled with cheese and nonsense. You would be wrong. ILLUSION is a rich tapestry of lyrical prose, inventive world-building, and social commentary you can cut your teeth on. It is - and I am not speaking in hyperbole - one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. If you, like me, have started to become weary and jaded with all these half-assed fantasy novels whose scantily-created worlds are just wispy pretenses for adolescent romance, hightail it to Amazon, order a copy of this book, and then stop by your nearest Papyrus store to get me a thank you card.

ILLUSION is set in the world of Vonahr. In Vonahr, a class division separates the privileged, magical Exalteds from the working class and serfs. Eliste vo Derrivale is the daughter of a provincial landowner, and oozes privilege from every pore, treating her servants as if they were little better than accessories, and just as quick to swap them out if they displease her. Her father, however, is a cruel man, who takes this objectification a step further - he conducts medical experiments on his servants, and is quick to lash, maim, or draw blood if they wrong him in any way because that is his right. Such cruelty is too much, even for Eliste, and when he turns his wrath on her childhood friend, she risks punishment by helping him escape.

She is later summoned by her grandmother to the city, to act as lady-in-waiting for Queen Lallazy. He grandmother, Zeralenn, is horrified by her rough-edged grand-daughter and immediately sets about getting her the right jewels, the right clothes, and the right conduct. Her cousin, Aurelie, uses these occasions as an excuse to obtain more worldly possessions for herself, and comes across as laughably selfish and empty-headed - which given Eliste's shallow personality, says something. The juxtaposition between the two girls is actually interesting because it highlights the fact that Eliste, despite her many flaws and her privilege and indifference to the suffering and plights of the lower class, really isn't a bad person. We see this when she helps a servant escape, the way she treats her own maid (who is really more like a friend), and the way she scorns the superficial courtship of men who are only interested in her beauty and her money.

Unfortunately for Eliste, the city of Sherreen is in the midst of massive political upheaval, stirred up by the political writer, Nirienne. An opportunistic despot named Whiss v'Aleur takes advantage of the displeasure of the lower classes, using the anger and frustration of the populace as a foothold to depose all ruling members of the Exalted class and start the "Reparation" movement. The revolution mirrors that of Russia and France in a pitch-perfect way that rivals - or, I would argue, surpasses - that of ANIMAL FARM. The emotions captured in this book are so convincing that I frequently found myself gripping the cover so hard my knuckles were white, as my stomach churned in either disbelief or disgust. Volsky portrays both sides without favoritism, and I found myself sympathizing with people of both sides, all the while loathing the despicable villain for being the scum of the earth that he is. Oh, and did I mention the evil robots? There's a steampunk element to this story in the form of four sentient robots - NuNu, ZaZa, Boomette, and Kokotte - who Whiss uses to carry out arrests, torture, crowd suppression, and public execution.

As if it weren't enough to provide an excellent re-imagining of two horrific civil wars, replete with evil sentient robots and a despot who resembles several real-world historical counterparts, Volsky's work, ILLUSION, is also evocative of many classics, including LES MISERABLES, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, ANIMAL FARM, and THE SCARLET PIMPERNELL. Really, though, this isn't surprising in the least. ILLUSION is written like literature, with complex syntax, beautiful writing, and a tightly controlled plot with character development arcs that spin out gradually, and copious use of foreshadowing. It kills me that this book appears to be out of print, as it isn't just a decent story that everyone should read and that should also be made into a movie; it deserves to be taught - or at least alluded to - alongside ANIMAL FARM.

I burned through the last 300 pages with feverish determination and ended up staying up until almost 3AM. My eyes were burning by the time I got to the final page of the book, but I was satisfied. ILLUSION was such a good book - I almost didn't want it to end, but at the same time, I did, because I needed to find out what happened to my characters after so many days of reading. Now, after looking through Volsky's other works (because my next plan of action is to purchase her entire back list), it looks as though she's written a follow-up to this work that takes place in the same world...

5 out of 5 stars.

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