Illusion by Paula Volsky

Have you ever read The Goblin Emperor and thought “More class warfare please!”? Alternatively, have you ever read The Powder Mage trilogy and thought “Needs more fancy dresses and magical guillotine!”*? Well, search no longer.

(* Tbf I’m only on chapter 6 of Promise of Blood, fancy dresses may be incoming.)

Paula Volsky’s Illusion is a sort of fantasy retelling of the French Revolution, mixed with a dash of the Russian. The country Vonahr is divided into several classes, with the Exalted firmly on top and their serfs on the bottom. The Exalted used to possess great magical power, primarily that of creating magical illusions, as well as the ability to give mechanical creations sentience. By the time of the book’s setting however, these powers seemed to have mainly faded, and in fact there are rumours that they’ve lost their magic completely. This, of course, makes it finally possible for the subjugated classes to dream of overthrowing their masters…

The protagonist of Illusion is Eliste vo Derrivalle, a seventeen year old member of the Exalted. She starts off as spoiled and breathtakingly arrogant as the rest of her class, but also shows an innate streak of decency from the start when she helps a serf childhood friend escape torture. Her journey goes from the highest heights to the lowest depths, from being a lady-in-waiting to the queen herself to starvation and near-freezing on the streets. Eliste is an interesting character to follow, as the narrative doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of her bigoted upbringing on her character (she’s no abolitionist and in fact considers serfs closer to animals than humans). At the same time, she has just enough strength of will, cleverness, and even kindness that I readily sympathised with her even before she got thrown onto the street and was forced to reexamine all her beliefs.

She’s joined by other interesting characters of the revolution: her eccentric Uncle Quinz, one of the last powerful magicians; her grandmother Zeralenn vo Rouvignac, who possesses a cool grace and an unbendable iron spine; Shorvi Nirienne, who dreams of a peaceful revolution, and Whiss Valeur, who demands reparations for centuries of subjugation in both coin and blood. There’s also the mob, which plays a large enough role to be counted as its own character: it reflects the mood of the city, at times capable of sympathy and desiring justice, at time purely vengeful and bloodthirsty. And of course there’s Kokotte, the sentient, magical guillotine (/Iron Maiden) mentioned earlier, who craves worship and adoration.

In my opinion, the book explores the ideas of social classes and revolution very well. The Exalted’s dehumanisation of the serfs is sickening, but at the same time Eliste and her grandmother believe firmly in noblesse oblige. The common people are perfectly just in rising up, but the republic they build after is marked by paranoia, corruption, and everyday executions. As a side-note, I liked that the intersection of sexism and class wasn’t ignored: Eliste’s life is in general incomparably more dangerous on the street, but the threat of sexual assault shadows her both before and after the revolution. Volsky is also fantastic at building up tension – you can sense shit’s gonna go down from the very start, but the atmosphere is built gradually, full of smaller injustices and reactions to them, until it’s finally too much and the clouds break into wrath. The glorious republic built after mirrors the problems we see in post-tyrannical regimes both in history and today.

Alright, I realise that my review makes the book sound gloomy and dark, and to a large extent I guess it is, but it’s actually also a very hopeful book! There’s good or admirable qualities to be found in most of the characters, including the mob, and the overall tone is, “Well that last try was a fuck-up but that doesn’t mean we can just give up!”, both from the country as a whole and from the indomitable Eliste. I also found myself weirdly invested in the romance, which, while set up quite well, only really takes place in the last ~5th of the book. Poor Eliste, I cackled a lot at her romantic plight. So altogether, I highly recommend this book!

The only problem is that it’s currently out of print. BUT not to worry: you can borrow the ebook from the Open Library, which means it’s afaik available (legally!) for free to people anywhere in the world.

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