The Magician’s Lie opens in 1905 Iowa. In the early pages, two off-duty policeman watch a woman illusionist chop a man in half onstage. The trick is gory and breath-taking, but after the show ends, they find a body killed with an axe, just like in the act. The Amazing Arden, architect of the trick, is wanted now, for the murder of her husband. Virgil Holt, a small-town cop who is standing at the crumbling precipice of his own personal destiny, finds The Amazing Arden in a coffee shop, and arrests her. The rest of the book plays out in an interrogation room, as Ada, or Arden, dodges Virgil’s questions and instead shares with him the story of her life.
Greer MacCallister lets us know right away that this book is a performance and not a naturalistic novel. The scenes in the interrogation room are loaded with stage directions and many of them will prove important as the story progresses. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, so suspending disbelief is usually not a problem for me. It was a little difficult here in a few places.
Ada – the Amazing Arden – has a magical ability to heal quickly. She not only heals herself, for much of the book she can speed the healing of others, just by wishing it. I had no trouble accepting this fantastical quality. I also had very little trouble with the manipulation and see-sawing of the power differential in the interrogation room, which is quite well done. Holt believes in Ada’s healing ability with very little prompting, explaining that his mother believed that some people had magic; just small magics that “made things better.” I think this is a rationalization on Holt’s part (intentional on the part of the writer); Holt believes in Ada’s magic because he needs to.
Where the suspension of disbelief faltered was in Ada’s recounting of her life. Ada’s life is a fairy-tale. Although she is illegitimate, she and her mother live in wealth and privilege in her grandparents’ house; Ada is taught to dance and the grandparents pay for travel costs for her mother to go to Europe and pursue her musical career. The mother, however, cashes in the tickets and runs away to Tennessee with a new man, taking Ada with her. On a poor farm in Tennessee, Ada meets Ray, the villain of the piece. Ray is a few years older than young Ada. He survived the fever that took both his siblings when he was a child, and from this, Ray concludes that he something special, blessed with special gifts. Seeing that Ada heals quickly, he assumes a bond between them, but that bond is ownership and he grows more possessive and dangerous as the story progresses. Ray is not just a villain. As the story continues into Ada’s adulthood, he becomes the boogeyman.
Ada flees her home to escape Ray, but for a teenaged girl on her own, she has remarkably few problems. This is where I began to disengage from the book. We are supposed to believe that Ada overcomes terrible hardships to get where she has gotten, but things go her way quite well. She sneaks into a great country home and disguises herself as a maid, only to be caught by the housekeeper – who keeps her on because another maid was let go earlier that week. When Ada is caught in a compromising position with one of the gardeners by the house’s owner, he is amused and lets her off with an avuncular lecture. This is very good luck for a maid in the late 1890s. The mistress of the house would have sent her packing.
I thought Ada had it awfully easy for much of this story, but once we met Adelaide Herrmann, I was willing to forgive nearly everything. Herrmann is an actual historical person, a woman illusionist who kept her husband’s show running after his death. This part of the book, with Ada – now called Vivi – learning the ropes of stage-magic, was delightful. Once again, things are very easy for her; the other women in the chorus line don’t like her, but Ada doesn’t really mind because she would rather hang out with the men and learn the secrets to the tricks. “Backstage secrets” always appeal to me, and MacAllister does a nice job of sharing tricks that are already pretty well known, while maintaining the mystery in the others. Soon, Ada is performing as The Amazing Arden, with a show of her own, and an eye toward a happy ending, when Ray reappears on the scene, bringing terror and pain.
Holt, back in the interrogation room, the “present tense” of the story, has his own problems, which are described lightly. I thought there was a slight failure of suspense here. MacAllister plays very fairly with her audience, we see what Holt sees and hear what he hears, and that gives us an edge. Holt’s question is whether he can believe what The Amazing Arden is telling him. Our question is somewhat different.
I did think I saw too much of the plot’s scaffolding through the story at times, but the depiction of the stage show and life on the road, and the larger-than-life character of Adelaide, made this an enjoyable read that I didn’t want to put down, even when I thought I knew what was going to happen (and I was right). MacAllister has also written plays, and to some extent, the staginess of the “present tense” story shows that. I’m also not convinced that the ending works completely, although by the end of the story, Ada/Arden’s choices are somewhat limited. Overall, though, I enjoyed The Magician’s Lie.