Fans of The Night Circus and adventurous science fiction will surely delight in Heather Dixon’s most recent novel, Illusionarium.
Set in an alternate reality of 1882 London, Illusionarium follows Jonathan Gouden as his world is turned upside down in a matter of hours. Jonathan is a simple apprentice who’s preparing for university when the King swoops into town, bringing with him the news of a terrible, fast-acting plague that’s killing women.
Jonathan and his father are tasked with finding a cure to the plague, but Jonathan gets thrown off course when he discovers he’s a talented illusionist with a chemical called “fantillium.” This chemical literally opens doors to sights and experiences that Jonathan has never known, leading him into a parallel alternate-London and a world full of oddities.
Racing against time to retrieve the cure while also honing his illusioning skills, Jonathan must learn what it means to follow his true path in the face of world destruction.
‘Illusionarium’ book review
The events of Illusionarium take place entirely in a world of its own. Or, more accurately, in worlds of its own. This intriguing story mixes steampunk elements, like floating ships and aerial cities, with a sort of dystopian London, creating a world that lives entirely by Illusionarium‘s rules.
One of the most obvious and prevalent of Dixon’s creations is the vocabulary of this 1880s London. Dixon creates new words and terms as skillfully as her characters create illusions. The terms simply appear without introduction, and yet they feel as familiar and natural as the language we use on a daily basis. Very seldom do terms pop up and require explicit explanation.
The novel has previously been compared to The Night Circus — and for good reason. Like The Night Circus, Illusionarium explores the depth and the limits of the imagination. Jonathan and the other illusionists draw from their experiences and knowledge to create terrible and beautiful hallucinations.
One of the major aspects that sets Illusionarium apart from The Night Circus is the fact that the illusionists have to know chemical structures and mathematical equations in order to create a lot of their illusions, including replications of real world objects and the ability to fast forward through time.
Though the novel’s events stem from a plague that’s wiping out the female population, the women in this novel are anything but victims. They’re fighters and leaders. More than that, these women have agency and make their own decisions. In a world where it would be easy for them to be victims, it’s so great that they aren’t.
Illusionarium is little bit steampunk, a little bit Night Circus, and a little bit Hunger Games, and yet it’s entirely its own entity. This novel is a roller coaster ride from its slow climb at the start to its world-hopping conclusion.