Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review - The Prestige

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest
1995 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

A few weeks before I read The Prestige someone managed to spoil the book for me. Since it is a book about magicians and secrets I fully expected that to harm my enjoyment of the novel. As it turns out it didn't; I could still recognize The Prestige as a well crafted novel telling an interesting story.

At the end of the nineteenth century a feud is born between two magicians. Neither fully understands how it starts and each take their turn escalating it. Eventually one of them develops an illusion that cannot be adequately explained by the normal techniques used and the other becomes obsessed with the secret. His obsession drives him to outperform that illusion and create something even grander though it carries with it grave consequences. Those consequences stretch far beyond their own lifetimes to change the lives of their descendants.

The story is told in four widely divergent styles across five sections that Priest manages to make distinctive. The modern accounts aren't spectacular but they're offset by the note perfect sections set in the nineteenth century. Those portions of the novel are presented as a secret autobiography that was never intended to be published and excerpts from a journal. They each possess strange quirks that come out in the writing that make the mysteries of the novel even more interesting.

Part of that is how the narrative voice becomes key to the characterization of the magicians. The magicians are secretive and tend to talk around subjects and so the reader has to look deeper into their stories to find the truth. They're bundles of self-delusions and obsession. Priest does such a great job getting into their heads for the narrative that it makes their stories that much more fascinating. That might be why the magician's sections of The Prestige are so much better than the portions about their modern day descendants; their great-grandchildren just don't carry the same passions.

Since the story is told in broken fragments it turns back on itself multiple times. The second portion of the novel set in the nineteenth century in particular repeats many of the events shown earlier but with a new perspective. This tactic successfully adds to the mysteries surrounding the novel and I never got annoyed with Priest repeating himself.

My complaints about the novel are nitpicks. As I mentioned the modern day sections lack the intrigue of the memoirs and didn't grab me. The characters there just aren't as interesting and the mysteries surrounding their lives aren't active forces in their lives. The magicians scheme, plot, and stalk each other over the course of decades; their descendants stumble around and talk about their ancestors. Also Nikolai Tesla plays a major part in the novel and at this point I'm weary of alternative histories featuring brilliant inventions by Tesla; yes, he's the archetypal mad scientist but he's overused.

Those are nitpicks and I do have one more major complaint that doesn't speak against the novel. I'm a collector and I try to acquire hard cover editions of all of these books. A hard cover edition of The Prestige starts at over two hundred dollars. Someone needs to reissue this book in a new hard cover printing.

The Prestige is a superior novel due mainly to the extremely strong narrative voice that Priest gives to the magician characters. It's a good story of a a petty feud that is wonderfully told. This is a book that is well worth getting.