August 24, 2006
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
An illusion has three stages.
First there is the setup, in which the nature of what might be attempted is hinted at, or suggested, or explained. The apparatus is seen. Volunteers from the audience sometimes participate in the preparation. As the trick is being set up, the magician will make every possible use of misdirection.
The performance is where the magicians's lifetime of practice, and his innate skill as a performer, conjoin to produce the magical display.
The third stage is sometimes called the effect, or the prestige, and this is the product of magic. If a rabbit is pulled from a hat, the rabbit which apparently did not exist before the trick was performed, can be said to be the prestige of that trick.
This novel is about magic, English magic in particular, or at least is portrayed as such for most of its length. American science makes an appearance, but by then the misdirection has already worked. It does not matter that you know this before reading this novel, the trick will work just the same. The book's main character is Andrew Westley, born Nicholas Borden, whose name changed after being adopted as a young boy. Andrew is convinced of a psychic link between him and a twin brother who cannot possibly exist, but whose possible existence has haunted Andrew. As the novel begins, he is confronted with the memoirs of his ancestor, Alfred Borden, a Victorian era magician who was famous in England at the time for his remarkable magic trick: `The New Transported Man', in which he appears to transport himself across a stage instantaneously. Alfred Borden's life, however, intertwines with another magician, Rupert Angier, with whom he begins a life-long feud and professional competition. Most of the novel is epistolary in nature (all the better to introduce unreliable narrators!) with the memoirs of Alfred Borden and the diary of Rupert Angier making up most of the novel's length.
Despite it's pretense at being historical fiction, the novel is really science-fiction, as you could imagine from Priest's previous work. A piece of ponderous historical fiction about Victorian magic: it does not really attempt to be such a thing. Think of it more as steampunk or entertaining speculative fiction. A more historically intertwined plot would have spent more time on Nikolai Tesla who appears all too briefly as a character in the novel. Perhaps as a result, even at 360 pages, the novel reads quickly and is almost novella-like in structure. It is not often that one complains that a speculative fiction novel is too short.
So what is the result? The prestige in this case is an entertaining novel which would have made a great graphic novel (it is rather to be a Hollywood movie it seems). In his more recent novels, Priest has moved towards fiction that looks at British history, but with the traditional Priest science-fiction touches. My own personal preference is still for his science-fiction work from the 1970s, like "The Inverted World".
%T The Prestige %A Christopher Priest %I Simon and Schuster, hardcover, 1995; Gollancz, paperback, 2004 %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0-575-07580-5 (pb) %P 360 %K science-fiction, historical-fiction
Review written: 2006/8/24Posted by anoop at August 24, 2006 12:44 PM