It’s difficult to say how long it’s been since I’ve been as enthralled with an audiobook as I was with this unabridged version of the World Fantasy Award-winning The Prestige (Blackstone Audio). Simon Vance narrated, and since the story is primarily told through journal entries of the two main characters, he was called upon to fully portray these two dark, intricate magicians. He unreservedly succeeded. Because of his subtle care, the surprises of the novel were enhanced by his reading. And there are many surprises.
The main characters are late 19th century stage magicians (or “prestidigitators”, as they call themselves) named Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. They perform in London, but at the height of each magician’s popularity, they tour America and Europe. But not together. No, these two guys are mortal enemies, out to better the other by whatever means necessary. Each one in turn performs a trick on stage that seems impossible to the other, and their personal obsessions are rooted in finding out how the other does his magic, and then to perform it better.
The novel is filled with fascinating detail about these magicians and their performances. Even more interesting are the journals themselves, because it becomes apparent that the journal writers are not reliable. Christopher Priest was masterful in the way he made sure that the journal writers were speaking squarely from their own point of view, which was not always technically true; rather, like journal writers everywhere, they would write something about their own motives that justified events to themselves. The result is an intricate web that is slowly unraveled throughout the book. Knowing what I know now, a second listen to this audiobook would reveal the breadcrumbs I missed along the way. I suspect I left several on the trail.
Also prominent is Priest’s portrayal of life in the 19th century. The values, the language, and the daily life of the characters all feel accurate, though I am no 19th century historian. The world’s reaction to the advent of electricity is a fascinating example. I couldn’t help but to think of modern parallels with the advent of the internet.
At first glance, this novel is fantasy. It even won the World Fantasy Award in 1996. But is this a fantasy novel? It really isn’t. Yes, there are magicians here, but they are stage magicians. As such, their tricks have perfectly reasonable explanations. Each of the main characters do specific remarkable things, but the reasons given for the way these things work are not magical, but scientific. More I will not say, because this is a novel to be discovered for yourself.