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Book Review: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Part Fantasy. Part Science Fiction. Part History. Part Memoir. Part Horror. Part Mystery. And the list goes on. The Prestige, by Christopher Priest, belongs in all of these genres, and yet it really belongs in none of them. Winner of the World Fantasy Award, The Prestige is a complex and convoluted fantasy novel that is truly innovative.

A part of the urban fantasy subgenre of contemporary fantasy, The Prestige, tells the story of two illusionists of the early 1900s. For various reasons, these two magicians, of wholly different characters, have fallen into a feud, each trying to outdo the other on stage and in their personal lives. Alfred Borden is a magician of the old style, naturally gifted in magic, a stage magician who despises those who use magic tricks to pretend to real magical ability. Rupert Angier is a magician down on his luck that turns to pretending to be a spiritualist to make ends meet (although eventually he does make it to the stage). It is from this their feud stems, but it eventually goes way beyond that.

Each story is told in the first person. It is here that the element of memoir comes in, as Borden and Angier each relates his story either as a memoir or diary, respectively. Borden�s story comes first, and it is from him that we get the shell of the story. Angier�s diary follows and it is from him that the questions raised in Borden�s memoir are answered, including the strange use of the pronoun �I�. Overarching this story is another frame, which involves two great-grandchildren of these men, whose lives were profoundly changed by Angier�s greatest illusion.

The story is complex and convoluted, although similar to the popular movie The Illusionist, it is in no real way comparable other than in their settings, and the main characters profession. Where The Illusionist is a love story, The Prestige is a fantasy, even a suspense novel. (In part these are comparable because The Prestige has also been made into a movie, which this reviewer has not seen.) The novel�s best comparison would be to the popular science fiction stories if the 1930�s and 1940�s, wherein a scientist discovers time travel or some new scientific device.

The book does not end as I would have liked. The story leading up to the climax is interesting and fascinating, the ongoing feud builds in interesting and creative ways, and the answers to THE NEW TRANSPORTED MAN (Borden�s trick) and IN A FLASH (Angier�s trick) are cleverly revealed. However, the overarching story of the descendents seems disconnected except superficially, and its climax is both anticlimactic and horrifying, making its tone seem out of place with the rest of the novel, which is more sedate and has more of a mystery or suspense feel to it, than horror. But then, mystery and horror are closely connected, as the genre of mystery was created by one of the best horror writers ever, Edgar Allen Poe. And a comparison between this book and the Tell-Tale Heart, would not be far astray.

I recommend this book be read by those who like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. The history filled with magic plot line will appeal to Clarke�s readers. I recommend that those who like reading the old pulp magazines give The Prestige a shot also. If you like a good mystery and don�t mind a sort of incomplete ending you might like this book as well. I enjoyed it, although I was disappointed in the ending, but then, I like my books to feel like the story is complete, and this one will leave you wondering.

Electricity and Nikola Tesla are also important parts of the story, but if I tell you why, it would ruin the whole effect. See for yourself if you want to know.