Illusion by Paula Volsky
First Publication Date: 1991
Synopsis: For two hundred years the Exalted classes have used their dazzling magical abilities to rule Vonahr. Now, their powers grown slack from disuse and their attention turned to decadent pleasures, they ignore the misery of the lower classes until the red tide of revolution sweeps across the land. Thrust into the center of the conflict is the beautiful Eliste vo Derrivalle, spirited daughter of a provincial landowner, who must now scramble for bread in the teeming streets of the capital. With the key to her magical abilities an elusive secret, she must suddenly find a way to survive in a world gone mad… with liberty.
I can’t believe I am done with this book, which took me over a month to finish! That is longer than I took for Anna Karenina or Ducks, Newburyport. There are a few reasons for that, and none of these reasons are that I did not enjoy this: I thoroughly enjoyed Illusion by Paula Volsky, this will for sure be a part of my favorite books of this year, especially in the fantasy genre.
Illusion has a nostalgic feeling to it, something about the beautiful writing, the delightful dialogues, the cozy sensation of reading a book that you know more or less how it will end (but it’s absolutely worth the journey of getting there) just made it feel like it was a favorite book that I was returning to. Reading this fantasy brick of nearly 700 pages felt like a balm, a quiet and fantastical escape from the real world. In terms of plot, there is plenty going on, with the Exalted Eliste vo Derrivale’s world thrown into chaos as the people of Sherreen are finally fed up enough to cause a Revolution which will cost very dearly to Eliste and those of her class, and whose leader, Whiss Valeur, shows signs of his tyrannical nature from the the start.
Paula Volsky truly shines when writing these characters: Elise, our heroine, is incredibly prejudiced, shallow and uncaring about the world around her, but she’s still so charming and there is something subtle about her power and strength, which is not common in contemporary fantasy heroines. I adore that heroines in fantasy epics are given roles of powerful queens, ambitious revolutionaries, ruthless warriors – but I also loved that Eliste was absolutely imperfect (and written by another author she’d be perhaps impossible to root for) but is given room to grow, slowly but surely, showing her strength in her resilience and quiet courage, even as I despaired that she could not care less about politics (there is literally! a revolution!). There are several women characters that I admired (or despised!) for one reason or another, it was such an interesting cast. Dref, the hero/love interest, is given far fewer pages, and I would have loved to have seen his scheming, escapades and adventures, but I suppose the book would be twice as long, then. I also wished to see more of the surprisingly resourceful and loyal Kairthe. While I loved Eliste’s chapters, I wanted to see more points-of-view – she was such a passive character in the events unfolding in the world that I hoped to see a bit more from the others. We do get more points-of-view from time to time, but I wanted even more.
The first half of the book was a solid 5-star for me, and then the pacing felt a bit off, and it does become a lot more romance-focused by the end (which I did not mind! But I think other readers might). As mentioned in the beginning, it took me a month to read this – because I did not want to part with this book, the story and the characters, and even now I’m a bit sad it’s over. I thought this was a perfect blend of adventure, hints of steampunk, sprinkles of magic, romance, character growth and generally a very enjoyable story to read. I found it especially fascinating how this story drew inspiration from the French and the Russian Revolutions, adding such a vivid, real feeling to the events in the book. I highly recommend this book!