Illusionarium by Heather Dixon
Reviewed by Kayla Dean
ISBN: 0062001051 (Hardback)
Greenwillow Books — 368 pages.
Since her 2011 fiction debut Entwined, an elegant retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in which delicate love story meets magical fairytale, readers have been waiting for more from animator turned author Heather Dixon. This time, she took her readers on a different journey in Illusionarium, a steampunk novel that took me by pleasant surprise.
In Illusionarium, 16-year-old Jonathan Gouden is an apprentice scientist to his father, a quirky but honorable man who studies medicine. In Fata Morgana, their aerial city in the icy north, a terrible disease has hit. The Venen is a killer of women, a deadly disease that soon infects Jonathan’s sister, mother, and longtime crush. But they’re on the clock: seven days and everyone he loves will die. Only Jonathan and his father can find a cure to the Venen, until the King insists that they work with Lady Florel, who Mr. Gouden served as an apprentice years ago.
The problem is Lady Florel is insisting they use a hallucinogenic to cure the Venen. The new substance, fantillium, lets people share hallucinations. Lady Florel hopes that Jonathan and his father can use it to practice cures without risk to the patients. Also, Jonathan discovers that he is an illusionist, a person that has the ability to manipulate matter under the influence of the drug. He wants to help, but his father doesn’t believe in Lady Florel’s solution.
It’s not long after that he’s shipped off to Arthurise, an alternate London, where he’s removed from his family and put in jail for a violent illusion involving a guard of the king’s airship. Arthurise is more or less the London we know, complete with the Tower of London, Thames, and Big Ben, but the government structure is a little different. And- you guessed it- the city was re-named after King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Jonathan isn’t in jail for long; Lady Florel busts him out and leads him into yet another alternate London, Nod’ol. His goals keep changing: first, he needs to win a cure for his family; second, he must fight the best illusionists in Nod’ol; third, he must defy Lady Florel and defeat the illusionists with friends he meets along the way. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens, but I can say this: you might be better off re-reading Dixon’s debut novel.
While Illusionarium featured great action scenes, unique Steampunk inventions, and an amazing alternate world which was strongly Victorian, there was something missing from the story. I’m not even sure that it’s tangible. I liked Jonathan, but he lacked some depth. Jonathan’s mother, sister, and crush are on the brink of death, but we don’t really feel his despair. We see that he understands the urgency of the situation and he does do everything in his power to remedy it, but a certain fervor is missing. It’s only through telling that Dixon conveys Jonathan’s despair. There isn’t any real subtext to really affirm this assertion.
The storytelling happens mostly in dialogue, and it does move along fairly quickly, but we don’t get quite enough introspection. For all its energy, Illusionarium doesn’t have the sass and kick of a Gail Carriger novel, such as Soulless. Although both novels feature alternate worlds, they are basically the cities we know, plus some dirigibles and a different name. London comes through loud and clear as a city echoing with history, a place rife with the struggles and chivalric strife of King Arthur as well as the later Victorian heroes. It’s a fusion of worlds, yet Illusionarium still didn’t have the same charming effect as Dixon’s first effort.
While Illusionarium was a decent book, I would recommend Entwined over this steampunk adventure. Fans of Laini Taylor Marissa Meyer, and Maggie Stiefvater may love the book, but if you’re looking for something more character-driven, I’d look elsewhere in the genre.