Born of IllusionFeatured
Born of Illusion is the first book in a new series. Each book in the series will introduce a new historical figure, whose legend is shrouded in magic, along with the young woman whose fate is irrevocably tied to his. The through line in each of the books will be The Ghost Club, the real life secret society that was founded in 1862 by the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Conan Doyle, and W. B. Yeats to advance mankind’s knowledge of the paranormal. The first three books in the series will deal with Houdini, Aleister Crowley and Rasputin.
One of the recent trends seems to be historical fiction set in the 1920s. Born of Illusion is the third one I've read in the last year with a focus on the occult during the prohibition era. The fact that Born of Illusion follows on the heels of The Diviners and In the Shadow of Blackbirds does not really diminish it for me, and, likely, it was already in the editing process before the first of those was released. It's a funny coincidence, though. Well, three books in and I am definitely a fan of this possible new trend, though I wouldn't mind seeing something set in the 1920s a bit more about prohibition or gangsters or crossdressing musicians, rather than seances and spiritualism.
Anna Van Housen joins the ranks of YA heroines with mother issues and missing fathers, also known as roughly a third of YA heroines. Her mother is a well-known medium, though Anna knows that's all just illusion. Anna's the one who creates much of the illusion in fact, and is a talented musician herself. Her mother claims that Anna's father is the illustrious Harry Houdini, but Anna's not sure, and really does not like having her talent explained away by inheritance, because she has worked hard. I love the way Anna refuses to fall into gender norms or allow anyone to diminish her based on her gender.
On top of her magician skills, Anna has a host of other abilities about which her mother knows nothing, because Anna doesn't trust her mother enough to tell her. When she touches people, Anna can sense their emotions. She also experiences visions of the future, usually of catastrophic events like the sinking of the Titanic, but now of her mom afraid and herself drowning. Her powers have been getting stronger and she doesn't know why. Both the spiritualism and magic tricks were well-handled and described.
Anna's relationship with her mother plays a crucial role, as do her relationships with others. Since Anna and her mom have moved a lot, she's rarely had any friends, and Anna generally avoids contact so as not to read people's feelings. Now that they've moved to New York City, they're trying to build a home for themselves for once. At first, Anna's mother seems irredeemable, but I love that her character rounds out as the book progresses.
So, too, do the rest of the supporting cast members. Everyone initially is quite one note, but they become more robust as Anna opens herself up to the idea of being close to people. Her sketchy manager turns out to be surprisingly dependable. The crotchety old man downstairs becomes someone who always cares and helps out. The vapid blonde with an interest in seances and the much older, bored husband ends up a dear friend. Watching Anna overcome her first impressions of people is delightful, and such a great message; in my own life, I've often found that people are not what they seem at first glance.
Then, of course, there is romance. Anna has two options on her romantic horizons: party boy and wannabe Magician Owen or controlled, polite British Cole. What's great about this love triangle of sorts is that it's very low key. Anna basically has two very different sorts of crushes on two very different boys, and is trying to figure out which one she actually likes. She doesn't make lifelong plans or commitments, and thinks in terms of the present moment, which is great.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The weak point of the novel was definitely the mystery element. Anna's trying to figure out who means her harm, and the culprit is obvious. Or, at least, was to me. The evil dude is also rather generically evil, too, lacking in motivation, though perhaps this will be developed in later books. On top of that, the ending felt quite rushed, with the climactic scene cut off in the middle, the rest of the happenings explained to Anna after the fact. While this did make sense in context, it was still confusing and anticlimactic for the reader.
The Final Verdict:
Though I initially thought Born of Illusion was a standalone, I'm okay with there being more books about Anna and will be eagerly awaiting Born of Deception. With a vibrant heroine, a cute romance, daring escapes and ghostly visitations, Born of Illusion is a fun and exciting read.
One thing I was excited about was the magic and illusions and Houdini-ness that I was promised to see in the synopsis. That was the defining factor that made me want to read it. But once I started it, it seemed like that was all there was in the story. They explained so many aspects of her mother and their job together, that they forgot about the rest of the story. There was absolutely nothing else going on.
Then I was excited about this boy that would make her gifts go crazy. But then there ended up being another dude and it seemed like a love triangle. After reading some of my friend's reviews, I'm guessing he's there for something that happens later in the plot, but I just couldn't get to that.
In the end I DNF. I had connected to Anna, but only barely, and I was sick of the redundancy of her job. I just needed something else.
To begin with, Brown’s main character, Anna, while not the most spectacular piece of characterization, was undeniably proactive and praiseworthy for much of the book. She’s spent all her life as an accessory to her mother’s career as a fraudulent spiritualist, and though Anna has talent of her own, she’s always been stifled by her mother. Moving to New York City opens up many new pathways, and Anna finds herself following her would-be father around town, as well as experiencing exciting things alongside two equally delicious suitors.
Of more interest, however, is the relationship between Anna and her mother. As far as Anna is concerned, her mother loves her daughter, but she loves her career more. Her mother has always been greedy and self-serving, always in search of power. But she’s also frivolous, and Anna has had to shoulder much of the “parenting” responsibilities over the years. The strained relationship between the two women is a major source of conflict in Born of Illusion, as Anna is understandably bitter toward her mother.
The love triangle, generally speaking, was mostly well done. Anna’s two love interests, Cole and Owen, were both presented as handsome young men with mysterious secrets. I’m of the opinion that love triangles are highly overproduced in young adult fiction, but this one wasn’t too bad, if a little obvious.
Where Brown excelled, in my opinion, was in the melding of historical and paranormal fiction. Anna’s world of real psychic abilities and fake séances fit perfectly against the backdrop of Prohibition-era New York City. I found the author’s numerous nods to the era’s fashion and music to be well-placed and appropriate, and the topic of spiritualism was also portrayed in an interesting manner, if not an entirely unique one (this book is rather reminiscent of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Distant Waves).
For the most part, Born of Illusion went along at a reasonable pace, with never a dull moment. Action and exposition were nicely balanced, and my interest was high. However, I found the novel’s climax to be predictable and too reliant on obvious clichés for my own taste, and the way Anna’s problems with her mother and with her two love interests resolved felt a bit obvious and forced to me. I did like how things were left open-ended but mostly wrapped up. I’m not sure if a sequel is in the works or not, though.
In the big picture, Born of Illusion was a fun and entertaining book that I enjoyed very much. Teri Brown did an excellent job with her topic and in mastering the two genres, and I found the story to be very engaging. And while this novel wasn’t without its faults, I was impressed nevertheless.