Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Landmark, I had a chance to read an advance copy of The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel from Greer Macallister.
In 1905, The Amazing Arden and her company of performers are putting on a show in Waterloo, Iowa. The audience is clamoring to see Arden’s most notorious illusion, The Halved Man. From his seat in the packed theater, a local policeman named Virgil Holt watches in horrified fascination as Arden attacks a man in a wooden box with an axe – and moments later, presents the same man, whole and uninjured, for the audience’s inspection.
Hours after the show has ended, Holt is called back to the theater to investigate a murder. A man is lying in the wooden box used in The Halved Man with an axe buried in his chest, and two young performers have identified him as Arden’s husband. No one who saw Arden perform The Halved Man earlier in the evening has any doubts about what happened to her husband – her trick, her axe, clearly her doing. Holt is the one to find Arden and take her into custody, but once he has her, he doesn’t know what to do with her. If he hands her over to the sheriff, she’ll definitely be hanged, and Holt isn’t entirely convinced she’s guilty. Arden has one night to tell Holt her story and convince him she isn’t a murderer. She starts from the beginning, as far back as she can remember, and as the night wears on, Holt struggles to decide if he can trust a women who built her reputation on making people believe the impossible.
Evidently, I have a bit of a weakness for stories about traveling performers in the early 1900s. I thought Water for Elephants was really interesting, and I absolutely loved the movie The Prestige (for more reasons than just because it starred Christian Bale). I think what appeals to me most is the backstage feeling these stories have – the impression that you’re being let in on a secret or getting a rare sneak peak at how things work. Some of my favorite moments from The Magician’s Lie were Arden’s descriptions of how her illusions worked. I love the way that she integrated herself into the company’s routine, starting as an extra, working her way up to having a few of her own illusions, and gradually becoming such a presence that she carries the show rather than being an accessory to it. The other thing that pulls me into this type of story is the sense of duality. The audiences who attend the circus performances or magic shows see something glamorous and fantastic, but the reality for the people who live and work on the shows is drastically different. As the reader, you get to see the hard work and the very unglamorous details that go into each performance.
The frame story format works really well for this book. There is a brief prologue from Arden’s perspective, but then Macallister shifts immediately to Holt. The story stays with him until Arden is in his custody, and then the point of view alternates between Holt’s thoughts as he interrogates Arden and Arden’s story of how she came to be where she is. I will say that I found the bits about Arden’s early life less interesting. She trains as a ballerina, works as a maid at the Biltmore, and eventually dances in a New York ballet company. The story didn’t really take off for me until Arden is approached by Adelaide Herrmann, the only female magician of the day with her own show. From that moment, I felt like Macallister found her rhythm, and the story really got going.
Beneath the excitement of Macallister’s descriptions of life in the magician’s company, there is the lurking awareness that Arden is telling her story because she’s bargaining for her life. In the moments where Macallister returns us to the “present,” we learn that Holt and Arden aren’t as different as he might like to pretend – Holt has a secret, one that he knows will catch up with him one day, and deep down, he’s hoping for a miracle (or magic, maybe?) to save him. As Macallister peels back the layers and shows you more about each character, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for both of them.
Macallister opens her story with a quote from Sanditon by Jane Austen: “Those who tell their own story, you know, must be listened to with caution.” As you come to the end of The Magician’s Lie, you wonder right along with Holt how much of Arden’s story is real and how much is illusion. Macallister gives readers plenty to think about: historical details, mystery, a villain, an unconventional romance, and a coming-of-age story. The only thing that kept this from being a five-star read in my opinion was the length of time (almost a hundred pages) it took for the story to really find its footing.