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Retro Friday Review: Illusion by Paula Volsky

This cover. This cover remains one of my favorite covers ever! I had never heard of Paula Volsky before or read much historical fantasy at all when a copy of Illusion arrived at my house. I was fifteen and my Aunt Claudia sent it to me for my birthday. She's a great reader, my aunt, and she has flawless taste. When they were kids, she and my dad would ride their bikes to the library and each check out a stack of Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys, go home, read them, switch, read, return, and repeat. She loves Dickens and Georgette Heyer and all manner of good ones. So I knew this one would be good. And I loved how reassuringly thick the mass market copy was. Slick gray pages and 674 of them in all--absolute bliss. I ended up reading the majority of it during a couple of late night babysitting stints. After the kids brushed their teeth and went to bed, I curled up in an oversize chair in the living room and lost myself in the crazy elaborate world Ms. Volsky created. I had honestly never read anything like it, and sadly, I have yet to actually talk to anyone else (besides my aunt) who has read it.

Eliste vo Derrivale (wow, did I love her name when I was 15 . . . oh, who are we kidding? I still do) is a member of the ultra-privileged Exalted class in the land of Vonahr. Having grown up on a rather idyllic estate in the countryside, she can hardly focus on anything else when the summons comes to move to the capital city of Sherreen and become a lady-in-waiting to Queen Lallazay herself. And so she packs her bags and trips off to make her debut at court without a backward glance. Unfortunately for Eliste, her timing is catastrophic. While she is primped, prodded, and ruthlessly trained in the intricate ways of court life, the nation's serfs are rising up. Sick of centuries of subservience to the Exalted class, whose rule is based on their much-lauded but rarely-seen magical abilities, the peasants have united. Before she has fully adapted to her new life, violence breaks out in the city and the life she longed to lead is ripped from her grasp. Forced out onto the streets, Eliste comes to grim terms with a very different way of life. And a past uncharacteristic and seemingly insignificant action comes back to haunt her, as one of the key members of the rebellion is none other than Dref Zeenosen--a serf she once freed from her father's tyranny in a fit of momentary pity a long time ago. If she is to survive, Eliste must develop a whole new set of skills and avoid the dreaded Kokette--the death machine that awaits any Exalted the rebels can get their hands on.

Just thinking about this gorgeous epic sends pleasant little sparks to the tips of my fingers. And I do mean epic in the long and drawn out sense of the word. Densely written, Illusion is expansive and filled with exquisite, minute descriptions of everything from the lace in Eliste's hair to the bloody spikes on the horrific, possibly sentient Kokette. Based on the events of the French Revolution, Eliste's world is richly evocative of that period in history and, while some of the events in the story may not surprise you as a result, the elaborate and sympathetic characterization and the delicious magical overtones will reel you in. I love that Eliste is such a spoiled brat at the beginning. She's the epitome of snobby upper crust debutante with a disdain for anything she deems beneath her--which is pretty much everything. She's young and thoughtless and incredibly annoying. But. She is often a keen judge of character. She is always a survivor. And she's unwittingly in for a real nightmare. The joy is in the transformation that is wrought and the growth she achieves as a result of having front row seats for the devastation of her world. I very much like who she becomes. Everything about this book takes its time, from the main character's evolution, to the extremely subtle and slow-building romance, to the final quiet and bittersweet conclusion. It could get tiresome, but to me it felt earned. If historical fiction is not your thing, you might find it difficult to sink into the slightly affected vocabulary and speech mannerisms of the principle characters. For me, the unusual blend of historical tapestry, magic, and early steampunk (in the form of crazily creepy machinery used as part of the revolution) worked like a charm. I would love to hear what fans of any or all of those genres think of it as it has long been a favorite.


Linkage
The Bookwyrm's Lair Review
A Small Accomplishment Review

Retro Friday Roundup
Chachic's Book Nook reviews Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn
A Girl, Books and Other Things reviews Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas
Good Books and Good Wine reviews The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
One Librarian's Book Reviews reviews A Train to Potevka by Mike Ramsdell

Comments

  1. I love this book. I read all of Paula Volsky's books back when they were coming out. But this one was my favorite; I think I've read it three or four times :-)

    Thanks for featuring it! Makes me want to go and reread it right now :-)

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  2. I agree - great cover and great character name! I'm checking our library for this one, thanks!

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  3. I read this at the same age, and it was one of my favorites. I still love it! Thanks for reminding me of how much.

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  4. This sounds fantastic. You didn't happen to see this, did you?

    http://suvudu.com/2010/06/25-years-of-spectra-the-grand-ellipse-2000-by-paula-volsky.html

    A whole new series this year, after ten years of no new books.

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  5. Karissa, yay! I'm not alone. And you've read them all--wow. I'm glad to hear this one's remained a favorite. It does seem to hold up well upon rereading.

    Rhapsody, yeah, I was pretty much a goner when my 15-year-old self saw the cover and read her name. Hope your library has a copy.

    Janeen, really?! That's so cool. I love remembering an old favorite.

    Diana, I hadn't seen that! Thanks for the link. I knew she'd sort of dropped off the grid, but I had no idea a new series was in the works. Exciting!

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  6. I'm actually not a historical fantasy fan--I mean, it isn't my go to gal. Not that I hate it. For one, I generally believe that if you can't fit it in three or four hundred pages, you have a lot of unnecessary fat.

    However, I've always been interested in the French Revolution. I love a good revolution of character. Your description is so heartbreakingly rendered that I may have to put Illusion in my TBR stack.

    Thanks for the tip off! Sometimes I need to get out of my urban rut!

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  7. This is a writer I've long looked at and never actually picked up. I think I may remedy that, thanks to your review, Angie. Thanks!

    Julianne

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  8. I am pretty sure that I have a Volsky book on my shelf. From memory it is a book that has steampunk elements that was recommended to me years ago.

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  9. Bets, you always make me smile with your wonderful comments. I may have to adopt your "I love a good revolution of character" as a mantra. And I know what you mean about reading ruts. I often find myself searching desperately for that unfamiliar thing that's going to bring me out of it.

    Julianne, my pleasure. Hope you enjoy! I've read a couple of her others; this remains my favorite.

    Marg, hmmm. Wonder which it is? I find it interesting that she seems to have been writing steampunk waaay early on. Certainly long before I was aware of it as a genre.

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  10. I've loved this book for years. I've read most of her others, but this one stands out as my favorite. Such a shame it's out of print (or was last time I checked.) And I agree that it's a fantastic cover--that's why I bought it in the first place.



    www.writingsnippets.com

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  11. I had to go and have a look at my list to find the title - it was The Grand Ellipse.

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  12. This review reminds me of my childhood. Thank you for shedding some light on the books that made our childhood memorable. Also some interesting retro books you can find at All you can books. Just thought I'd mention that.

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  13. Jocelyn, you have? How wonderful. I did notice it was out of print as I was preparing this review and that surprised me and made me sad. Though I never do hear people talking about it so I should have guessed.

    Marg, ah, I haven't read that one. I hear she has a new series in the works after quite a break. I think I'll be checking it out.

    Connor, thanks for the link!

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