Born of Illusion
by Teri Brown
June 11, 2013
Balzer + Bray
Source: Around the World ARC Tours
Anna Van Housen is thirteen the first time she breaks her mother out of jail. By sixteen she’s street smart and savvy, assisting her mother, the renowned medium Marguerite Van Housen, in her stage show and séances, and easily navigating the underground world of magicians, mediums and mentalists in 1920’s New York City. Handcuffs and sleight of hand illusions have never been much of a challenge for Anna. The real trick is keeping her true gifts secret from her opportunistic mother, who will stop at nothing to gain her ambition of becoming the most famous medium who ever lived. But when a strange, serious young man moves into the flat downstairs, introducing her to a secret society that studies people with gifts like hers, he threatens to reveal the secrets Anna has fought so hard to keep, forcing her to face the truth about her past. Could the stories her mother has told her really be true? Could she really be the illegitimate daughter of the greatest magician of all? (Goodreads Summary.)
My Take On It
I was super excited when I read the synopsis for Teri Brown’s Born of Illusion. I think spiritualism is a fascinating subject from an historical perspective. Who doesn’t think that seances, Ouija boards, and communing with ghost is really cool stuff? I also liked the fact that this book was set in 1920’s New York, as opposed to Victorian England, which seems to be the normal setting for spiritualism in YA.
And in addition to spiritualism there is also illusionism (MAGIC!) involved! Right from the start Harry Houdini is mentioned, and mentioned as possibly being Anna’s father, which is all sorts of cool.
So, the premise of Born of Illusion is AMAZING, right? Unfortunately for this reader however, the story within just didn’t live up to it’s potential. It’s not that writing wasn’t good. Ms. Brown is a skilled writer. But I had a hard time identifying with some of the characters, and found other parts of the plot to be rather predictable.
Our MC Anna is the daughter of a famous illusionist and medium, Marguerite. Anna had a very unconventional upbringing, traveling the world with her mom and performing in various circus’ and sideshows until her mother hit the big time. Now the two have settled in New York, and her mother is performing nightly theater shows and conducting midnight seances for the rich from their apartment. Anna wishes they could just do their stage act, she doesn’t like the seances. One reason is because it’s completely rigged and she not only feels sorry for the people her mother is bilking, but is also constantly afraid they will be found out and unveiled as frauds.
But there is another reason Anna doesn’t like seances. Turns out that along with being a budding young magician (escaping handcuffs and knots are some of her favorite moves) she actually CAN see dead people. And she doesn’t much care for it. In fact, she won’t even let her mother know the truth, afraid that she will exploit her and the seance gig will go on forever. Anna just wants normalcy in her life for once. She loves being onstage performing magic, but dreads the evening seances that her mother insists on.
In addition, Anna has visions of the future. She forsaw the Titanic sinking, etc. And lately she has been having a dream about her mother being in serious trouble. But she can’t tell her mom (or anyone) this because she can’t let her know anything about her special abilities. Either she’ll be so jealous she’ll try to sabotage Anna somehow or she’ll totally try to use it to her own advantage and a way to make more money.
And here lies a couple of my problems with the characters. First there is the extremely dysfunctional relationship between Anna and her mom. Both are performers and there is so much jealousy and competitiveness between them it’s sickening. Now, I’m no performer, and I guess that in certain acts, even family acts, that kind of thing happens a lot. But all it did in this case is keep me from connecting with either Anna or her mom’s character. I found their behavior to be petty, selfish and just plain awful.
Normally this would make me feel really sorry for Anna and her situation. But I had a hard time feeling that for her because she is constantly struggling to rise up in an attempt to beat her mother at her own game instead of trying to work out their problems. And when her mother dupes or bests her in some way, Anna comes off as very whiny and childish.
Look, I know that I don’t have to like every character I read to appreciate them or the story being told, but I can’t help it, not really liking Anna, and definitely not liking her mom, kept me from enjoying this story more.
There were other parts of the tale that I liked more. The interactions between Anna and Houdini were great. There is always this lingering question of whether he is or isn’t her father. Her mom likes to spread the rumor that he is (helps her social standing in the magic community and get’s people talking about her) but Anna has no idea if it’s the truth or not. It’s futile to even ask her mother because she can’t believe a word she says anyway.
There is a romance, with a pseudo love triangle of sorts. I say pseudo because it’s apparent right from the start that one of these guys isn’t on the level and therefore not a viable option. There is a cool friendship between Anna and her downstairs neighbor, Mr. Darby who is the crotchety old man who likes to tinker in his workshop and invent things. But this part of the book is minimal and not explored much.
Setting wise there are a few interesting descriptions of 1920’s New York, the street scene and a speak easy scene, but after reading a book like Libba Bray’s The Diviners, Born of Illusion doesn’t come close to portraying the feel of that period of time in America.
So, in the end, I struggled to get through this book more than I hoped. I had a hard time keeping my attention focused and after finishing felt pretty “Meh” about the whole thing. I do like that more YA authors are writing historical fiction, and the setting of 1920’s New York is definitely one I would love to read more of in the future. But in this instance, Born of Illusion just didn’t live up to the hype or my expectations.