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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: Born of Illusion

Born of Illusion by Teri Brown. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Walking down the street of 1920s New York City, Anna Van Housen looks like any other proper sixteen year old young lady.

It’s taken a lot for Anna and her mother, Marguerite, to get here. Years on the road, travelling, from performance to performance, sometimes one step ahead of the law.

Marguerite is a mentalist and a medium; Anna is an illusionist, a magician who opens for her mother’s act. Thanks to a new manager, they are in New York City, living in a good neighborhood, holding seances for rich and important people. Technically, yes, it’s against the law.

Why? Well, because it’s all a fake. A con. Tricks and slights of the hand, just like Anna’s magic tricks. It’s all about the show, and part of the show the identity of Anna’s father: Harry Houdini. A “secret” Marguerite shares when it’s to their advantage.

Is Houdini really her father? Anna longs to know the truth. Like him, she loves planning and performing magic tricks. She wishes that her mother would give her a bigger role in their show. Anna also has a secret: unlike her mother, Anna really is a psychic. She can’t control it and she’s learned to hide it, but she can see the future. She can talk to the dead. She wonders if she gets this talent from her father. She wonders if Houdini’s well known battles in exposing fake seances is because he knows that sometimes, it’s real.

Living in one place means that Anna has the chance to make friends. They include a relative of the downstairs’ neighbor. Colin Emerson “Cole” Archer III is about her age, and it turns out he has his own secrets. Owen Winchester is a respectable young man who likes Anna and also likes magic. Cynthia, the young wife of a rich man, enjoys the fun of seances. From both Cynthia and Cole, Anna learns that there may be others like her, a whole secret society. But, who can be trusted? Is the society there to help people with her talents, or to use them? And are Anna and her mother in danger because of those gifts?

Anna is torn: between keeping her ability secret and learning how to control it. As her visions become more personal, more dangerous, she wonders what to do next.

The Good: New York City in the 1920s comes alive, and Anna is an interesting person to talk about it. Because of her upbringing, she has a level of independence and a level of maturity that other sixteen-year-olds woudn’t have. She is often out and about on her own.

Anna loves that they are in one place, that they have a real apartment, a real home. She doesn’t love how they have it. Oh, she likes performing — she loves performing, actually, and wants to do more. She doesn’t love the fake seances, taking advantage of grieving people. She realizes this is a bit of a conflict, in that she wants the stability of living in one place, and making friends, but she loves doing something that requires performing on stage and travelling from town to town. I liked the details about just how the seances were faked, as well as some of the tricks behind Anna’s illusions.

And that secret society . . . . ┬áIt’s the Society for Psychical Research. It would be too tidy if the Society swept in and answered all of Anna’s questions. It does not. Anna tries to get more information, but it’s based in England so it’s hard to find things out. And who can she trust, really? That, really, is the mystery: are her visions real? What is the real danger?

Marguerite and Anna have an interesting dynamic. It’s just as much partners as mother/daughter; Anna is sometimes the one taking care of Marguerite. In the past, she has sometimes rescued Marguerite following a run-in with the local law. Marguerite isn’t even Marguerite. She was born Magali Moshe. Her name is as much a bit of show business as anything else about her. And what, exactly, is the story with Houdini?

Last point: Anna gets some answers about the Society, but not all. According to the publisher’s website, this is the first in a series about the Society, which is based on a real life organization. Born of Illusion works as a standalone; it’s a complete story, with an ending, even though it’s clear that there is more to learn about the Society and that Anna herself may have more adventures. The setting reminded me of The Diviners; and fans of that book, who are waiting for the sequel, will enjoy Born of Illusion.

Other reviews: Bookish Notions; Miss Print; A Reader of Fictions; Read Breathe Relax.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is