Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

I'm not sure why, but this book is getting a bad rap from a lot of reviewers.  I think many readers went into this expecting another riff on fairy tales like Dixon's first YA book, Entwined, but it's not.  It's a steampunk adventure and I loved it.

Authors can write about whatever they want.  They really shouldn't be pigeonholed for writing fantasy or sci-fi or romance or whatever.

Dixon has a knack for making the style of her novels match the theme.  That's a rather vague way of putting it, but let me give you examples.  In Entwined, she does a riff on The Twelve Dancing Princesses involving an intricate dance called the Entwine.  The plot and characterization, too, is slowly unraveled as the characters become more entwined with each other.  It's a fairly complex plot, reflecting the theme of the novel.  Similarly, in Illusionarium, Dixon plays with concepts of reality and space-time in a steampunk setting.

Jonathan Gouden is the son and assistant of one of Fata Morgana's most esteemed scientists.  What is Fata Morgana, you ask?  Well, only the northernmost floating city of the Empire.  One day, the Westminster, the royal airship, arrives at Fata Morgana.  Aboard is King Edward VII and the Queen.  King Edward has come from the capital of Arthurise to ask Jonathan's father to assist his former teacher, the brilliant Lady Florel, in discovering a cure for the Venen.  The Venen is a disease with a known pathology and no cure.  It only affects women ... and the queen is ill.  The King is desperate, and he informs Jonathan and Dr. Gouden that Lady Florel has discovered a new way to conduct research: illusioning.

I'll not get into the nitty gritty but basically you inhale fantillium, a mysterious liquid substance that enables some people to create extremely realistic illusions with the power of their minds.  These illusions can be shared by many people as a sort of mass psychosis.  Form the molecular structure of ice in your mind, project it, and whoosh!  Those with you will feel and see the ice as if it really existed.

So basically they're doing drugs, yes.

ANYWAY.  Lady Florel reasons that an illusionist can illusion time to move more quickly or more slowly, thus giving the scientists more time to find a cure.

Unfortunately, Dr. Gouden declares that Lady Florel is not the real Lady Florel, refuses to work, and is summarily arrested.  And then ... Jonathan's mother and little sister Hannah both fall ill with the Venen.  And now he's desperate.  We all know what desperation does.  He has to save her, this "absolute sort of person.  She could stand there, leaving a trail of water on the dusty library rug, and yet command attention from just the delight in her eyes and the whip of her voice."  Yes, I too like Hannah!

After some family feuding and several scuffles with Lockwood, a one-eyed crackshot guardsman, Jonathan orchestrates a jailbreak to free Lady Florel (the king was in sort of a jailing mood, being that his wife was dying and all).  She illusions a doorway to a place that is Arthurise, and yet not.  It is "Nod'ol."  Jonathan and a very unwilling Lockwood both end up in Nod'ol, where Florel promises a cure for the Venen can be found.  Only this glistening version of Arthurise, of Old London, done up in gold and shining glass, isn't all ponies and rainbows.

This is a land of masks and illusions.  A land where illusions are commonplace entertainment.  Lady Florel has the antitoxin to hand, and yet Jonathan must pay for it.  He must enter a sort of tournament for illusionists.  It's basically like imagination gladiators, and just as cruel.

Soon, Jonathan realizes that something is rotten in the state of Nod'ol, as the masks are not merely ornamental, but ways to disguise a rather horrifying side effect of fantillium exposure.  Soon, Jonathan, Lockwood, and a girl named Anna (his sister's parallel universe counterpart) are on the run from the Masked Guard as Jonathan tries to illusion a door back to their own universe.

That's barely scratching the surface, really.  I adored all the footnotes that Dixon added, which is very steampunk and very, very funny!  I did guess one of the major plot twists but it was quite satisfactory.  Dixon has an excellent sense of world building and it's fun to play "spot the real British Empire" here in a universe where everything just went wrong.  In the beginning, Jonathan describes himself as a "sort-of" kind of guy, neither strong nor weak, handsome nor ugly.  Just ... there.  And as he finds himself falling deeper into moral decay, he must fight even harder to scrabble back to what is right ... or what seems to be right.

Dixon also does a really good job of a basic multiverse theory explanation, although my favorite is still the one in Michael Crichton's Timeline.

This is an absolute winner, but might not be for everyone.  Those with a taste for steampunk-universe-jumping-scientific-adventure?  Here you go.


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