A Novel Ian Likes: Illusion by Paula Volsky

Eliste is the daughter of a minor noble in the kingdom of Vonahr. She secures a position as a maid of honour to Queen Lallazay, wife to King Dunulas. But Eliste arrives at the palace in a time of political unrest which soon bubbles over into outright revolution. She manages to escape from the palace and struggles to survive on the streets. She is rescued by a childhood friend who has become the aide to a known political malcontent, but is just as quickly thrown into more peril when she becomes involved in a plot to overthrow the revolution…

Paula Volsky is the author of about twenty novels, many of them – including this one – set in the same world. When Illusion was published in 1991, it was quickly recognized as a fantasy retelling of the French Revolution, with the bicentenary of that event having only recently passed, although elements of other conflicts have been spotted by some eagle-eyed fans.   

It’s understandable that most people would be thinking of the French Revolution, though: Dunulas and Lallazay are certainly modelled after Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and their palace, the Beviaire, certainly does put you in mind of Versailles. The Exalted, the lords and ladies that have bled Vonahr dry over the previous centuries, are modelled upon the French aristocracy, with their belief that their magical talents (sadly diluted over time) make them superior to the serfs they rule over.

The rest of the world feels terrifically fleshed-out, too. Mention is made of neighbouring countries who don’t play much part in this novel, but ancient treaties and conflicts, as well as family ties, are referenced and cement the world as having some reality. The city of Sherreen, where most of the action takes place, is similarly built up in the mind of the reader so that you have a very clear picture of an old city, with clearly-defined suburbs and streets. And the magic that once ran so powerfully through the veins of the Exalted is largely fit now only for parlour tricks, but there are remnants of their magical technology playing a major role in the revolution that feel weighted down with their own history and dark personalities…

But it would all come to nothing if it weren’t for the characters who live there. They are wonderful and make you care for them or boo them in turn. Eliste is beautifully-drawn: she begins as a spoiled daughter of the aristocracy but we gradually learn that she has some fire and sympathy for others under her skin. As our major point-of-view character, we care about what happens to her and are pleased when she shows some steel and growth over the course of her story. Dref, a serf she befriends through him being educated alongside her due to his high intelligence, becomes a major player in the novel, largely through his proximity to Eliste but also because he is quick-witted and resourceful. Eliste also briefly lives with her great-aunt, who acts as a mentor for her entry into the court. She is an aloof grande dame of the court, living in self-imposed exile until Eliste needs her advice, and her snobbishness informs everything she does in the book, but not at the expense of her common sense. The villains, too, are portrayed superbly: Whiss v’Aleur, the main architect of the revolution, does some terrible things but he almost has you convinced of their utilitarianism, and he is a powerful speaker with a message that really does need to be heard… just not the way he’s saying it. Even the minor characters are fantastic: Eliste’s cousin Aurelie is the most amoral opportunist in literature since Mrs Bennett, more charming but not quite as likeable… and Eliste’s own maid Kairthe has one of the most amazing and heartbreaking moments in the entire book when she manages to save Eliste from being captured.

Now, this is the point where I usually talk about what this book means to me, and how it became so important. Alas, I do not have a story to go with this novel: it’s just a thumpingly good tale, brilliantly told. It was also something of a breakthrough novel as well: epic fantasy during the 1980s mostly meant trilogies (or longer!) with a cast of characters from different parts of an invented world (which usually bore a strong resemblance to Europe somewhere between 1000 BCE to 1500 CE) who came together to quell a threat that endangered their cultures and who often became leaders of that world in some way. So far, so Tolkien. There were variations, of course, but that is what Fantasy as a genre looked like to the casual observer. It was also an inherently conservative genre. Like thrillers, fantasy novels often result in the status quo being reasserted: the king – or (usually) their son – was restored to the throne; wars were ended or averted and people returned to their normal lives; society continued as it had before. There may have been some changes to the society being described but they really only applied to a small cohort of a particular social class. If we look at The Lord Of The Rings (which was a massive influence on the form in the 1980s), there has been some major upheaval to Middle-Earth by the close of the War Of The Ring, but most of them go largely unseen by people who aren’t characters. The world has moved into the Fourth Age but nothing has really changed, in the main. Aragorn may have become King of Gondor but, really, he’s just restoring the monarchy after a long string of kings-in-all-but-name. And the Elves may have left, but since they hardly ever interacted with the kingdoms of Men, nobody’s really going to notice.

Illusion refuses to play this game: at its conclusion, Vonahrish society cannot return to how it was before the revolution, so the status of all the characters has changed. Everyone has to learn new ways of getting by and new rules to live by. Those who had power in the previous version of Vonahr do not have anything resembling their old influence anymore and many who are in positions of authority now do not have the experience necessary: it’s a new version of power – something that we in our comfortable Western democracies might recognize from history – that everyone has to learn the workings of. It’s something that not many other novels in this genre might tackle: at the conclusion of many stories, there might be people masquerading as “new blood” to refresh the corridors of power, but in reality, they still represent a lot of the old ways in a fantasyland, with no fundamental change to how things are done, despite some nods to the apparently glacial tides of history.

There’s also another departure from standard epic fantasy novels in that Eliste is our main character but not the hero of this story. We see or hear of a lot of major events from her perspective, but she remains a minor character in the greater story unfolding. What we get is how it affects her and, by extension, other people. And while this could lead to some passive actions on her part as things happen around her, she does remain an active participant in the plot. It is she who persuades her great-uncle to help end the revolution; she is the one who distracts a mob from overturning a carefully planned action in that campaign; and she is the one who manages to repel the magical torture devices that would otherwise topple the resistance she is a part of. It is only a tiny portion of her Exalted ancestry that makes her exceptional: the rest of her strength and will comes from being a regular human and that is what she embraces by story’s end.

And speaking of stories, there are some wonderful nods to other classics of revolutionary fiction. There’s an identity switch straight from A Tale Of Two Cities (as well as a Madame Defarge-alike); at one point Eliste makes contact with someone very clearly operating as a Scarlet Pimpernel-style character; she also finds refuge in a hidden room in the attic of a bakery, echoing the experiences of Anne Frank. There are probably a ton of references and tributes to other books but those are just the obvious ones I’ve spotted because I’m not really an expert in this field.

But I do know that I really love this book: it’s got everything that great escapist literature should have: characters to love and hate, a plot and setting that you can lose yourself in for ages, and it’s just brilliantly written.

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