London, 1873. Returning home from his travels Walter Balanchine is noted for the charms, potions and locket hanging from his neck.
Finding his friend Tom Winter’s mother unwell, he gives her a potion he learned to brew in the Far East. Lucid and free from pain, the old woman remembers something about Walter’s mother. Walter is intrigued, for he has never known his family or even his own name – he christened himself upon leaving the workhouse.
Living in a cemetery with his pet panther Sinbad to keep the body snatchers away, word soon spreads of his healing and magical abilities and he becomes a sought after party performer. During one of Walter’s parties, Tom is approached by Tamara Huntington, who reveals she is being forced to marry a man she does not love. Will he and Walter come to her rescue?
Try as they might, sometimes all the best intentions in the world can’t put a stop to a bad thing, and she is soon married off to the cruel Cecil Hearst. Drama and tragedy ensue, and Walter keeps his distance from Tamara.
That is until her stricken brother-in-law Daniel requires his magical healing, and he is forced back into her life. With secrets beginning to emerge, Walter finds his mother may be a lot closer to home than he realised…
Filled with mystery, magic and larger than life characters, Illusion will keep you guessing until the very last page.
I'm absolutely delighted to be hosting the blog tour for Illusion today, thank you to the author, publishers and Hannah Groves for inviting me and for my copy of the book.
From the very start of Illusion I was transported to the streets of London in Victorian England; the fog, the grime, the ever pervasive smells. The prose here is so evocative, even the simple act of buying fish is brought vividly to life. These are the streets of urchins and ruffians, beggars and thieves. It is here that we first meet Tom Winter, former workhouse boy turned piano teacher. Tom is at the docks, buying fish for his Ma, but becomes aware of the 'dried peas and eels' feeling that means something is wrong. Before long it looks like he is about to be on the end of a beating but then a hand grips his arm and steers him away from immediate trouble. That hand belongs to one of the most unforgettable characters I have ever met in a book, Walter Balanchine. His extraordinary appearance immediately sets him apart,
'Where others sought to paste themselves into their surroundings, melt into the muddy streets, Walter courted difference. He saw nothing strange in lurching about East London like a great, bony peacock.'
I can't help but feel Walter Balanchine and Sherlock Holmes would find they had much in common. Both have an otherness about them, possess the ability to look deep into a person's character, and have a perceptive insight into the human psyche. However, Walter is not a detective, he's a wizard - or so some people believe. He tells Tom there's no such thing as magic, "Not in the literal sense anyway." but his illusions weave a spell over his audiences, and indeed the reader, as his amazing abilities seems to transcend what we can understand. His stage performances aren't the only reason for his becoming renowned, he is also a gifted healer, the charms around his neck contain potions that make the sick well, the injured heal and the dying pass more peacefully.
It turns out that Tom and Walter have known each other since childhood when they both escaped from the workhouse. Walter has been away, travelling in the East while Tom now teaches rich young women and girls how to play the piano. When Tom suggests Walter could perform a magic show at the birthday party of one of these girls he isn't to know that their lives are about to be changed forever or that they will embark on a quest that will mean they uncover dark secrets and which will lead them into terrible danger,
The first part of the book is really Tom's story. He is irrevocably drawn to Tamara Huntington from the moment he sets eyes on her. When she approaches him to ask if he and Walter can help her escape from the clutches of Cecil Hearst - the man she is to marry - they soon devise a plan they believe can't possibly fail... We are introduced to the main characters in part one of Illusion and though Walter may be the vividly brilliant star at the heart of the novel, this is as much the story of Tom and Tamara. Tom is immensely likeable, the one child who could see past Walter's unnerving appearance, he is a decent and honourable man who works to provide for his bedridden and confused mother. Her nurse, Sally is an angel, patient and caring - and in love with Tom. Walter has returned from his travels with a new friend, a young stowaway boy, Kayan. Before long this little group are joined by the jovial and resourceful, if often drunk, Cornelius, his wife, the Missus Cornelius and a magnificent panther, Sinbad. They might be unconventional but the relationship between these loyal and principled friends is as touching as anything I've read this year.
If part one of the book is Tom's story then part two belongs to Tamara. There's definitely more than a hint of the Gothic to Illusion, particularly when the action moves to Somerset and to the oppressive and ugly house owned by Cecil Hearst. Tamara seems to be the archetypal Victorian heroine as at first she is the helpless victim forced to marry a man against her will. However, the hopeless situation she finds herself in forces her to become a strong and enterprising woman and slowly she finds ways to oppose and obstruct her cruel husband. She is delighted when Walter comes back into her life and when he leaves her a mysterious message she begins to believe that perhaps there is hope after all.
There are still more twists and turns to come however, and part three brings another change in circumstances for our characters, a visit to Prague, more magic, truths revealed and a welcome return. Eventually part four sees the conclusion of the epic tussle between right and wrong, light and dark, Walter and Cecil. If Walter is the conduit for hope in Illusion then Cecil is evil personified. Every time it seems Tamara will finally escape his clutches, this malevolent abuser seems to regain the upper hand. I was gripped from the first page to the last of this beautifully written and plotted novel. It so cleverly combines two stories; Tamara's is one of domestic abuse, a woman forced to marry a man she didn't love and as the steadfast wife, to endure whatever he inflicts, and then the other tale is the mystery of just who Walter really is. Named by himself and with perhaps the only clue to his identity from the occasional lucid moments from Tom's mother, just where does this extraordinary illusionist and healer really come from, and are his special gifts just the result of a sharp and inquiring mind or was he destined to become this mystical enigma?
Illusion is a book to savour, the prose is as magical as Walter's illusions and I was completely spellbound by this captivating story. I hope there will be more to come from Walter but even if there isn't, I look forward with eager anticipation to see what Stephanie Elmas' imagination conjures up next.
Illusion is published by Endeavour Press and can be purchased here. Don't forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour, including a fantastic giveaway over on Carpe Librum.
About the Author
Stephanie Elmas was born in Hong Kong to an English father and Czech mother but spent most of her childhood in Bristol. She studied English at university in London. Having worked as a head hunter, she taught English in Japan before returning to university to complete an MA in Victorian fiction. It was here that she developed her interest in the dark dangerous world of Victorian sensation writing. After the success of her first novel, The Room Beyond, Elmas has returned to write the tale of the early life of East End mystic and illusionist Walter Balanchine. When she is not writing, Elmas teaches secondary school English and juggles a chaotic household in Surrey.
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