The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie is such a tough act to follow. Especially if the next book that is picked up is also of the historical fiction variety. How could anything even compare to a book that I’ve anticipated reading for months? Enter The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron– a bit of a historical “whodunnit” set in 1927 Boston and on the Vaudeville stage. It had the ingredients to become an instant favorite, yet in the end I just sort of felt like something was missing.
Boston, 1926. Jenny “Wren” Lockhart is a bold eccentric—even for a female vaudevillian. As notorious for her inherited wealth and gentleman’s dress as she is for her unsavory upbringing in the back halls of a vaudeville theater, Wren lives in a world that challenges all manner of conventions.
In the months following Houdini’s death, Wren is drawn into a web of mystery surrounding a spiritualist by the name of Horace Stapleton, a man defamed by Houdini’s ardent debunking of fraudulent mystics in the years leading up to his death. But in a public illusion that goes terribly wrong, one man is dead and another stands charged with his murder. Though he’s known as one of her teacher’s greatest critics, Wren must decide to become the one thing she never wanted to be: Stapleton’s defender.
Forced to team up with the newly formed FBI, Wren races against time and an unknown enemy, all to prove the innocence of a hated man. In a world of illusion, of the vaudeville halls that showcase the flamboyant and the strange, Wren’s carefully constructed world threatens to collapse around her.
Layered with mystery, illusion, and the artistry of the Jazz Age’s bygone vaudeville era, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is a journey through love and loss and the underpinnings of faith on each life’s stage.
I think the thing that frustrated me the most about The Illusionist’s Apprentice is it’s one of those stories that bounces around the timeline. The story opens in 1926/1927 Boston. Then, six chapters later, we’re back in 1907 to reveal some small insight into one of the characters. A few pages later, we’re back in 1927 only to bounce back to 1924 in the next chapter for some more character insight. And so on and so forth. Part of me can appreciate what the author was trying to do; there were so many details in the past that seemed unassuming at first, but they ended up being totally relevant to the end of the novel. My biggest qualm was…I just felt disoriented. And I don’t think it’s through any fault of the author or the story; I think I just prefer more linear storytelling. I struggled to keep track of the timeline in Linda Lafferty’s the Girl Who Fought Napoleon after all. That being said, I also felt…well…bored? The timeline shifts slowed the pacing of the story down, sure, but what really frustrated me was that I finally discovered a novel that boasts being written about the jazz age that doesn’t revolve around/involve flappers, and I kept getting stuck in Wren’s sad childhood in 1907.
What I was really sticking around for was Cambron’s writing and world building. It was beautiful and atmospheric and full of intrigue both on and off stage. Plus, I was totally enamored by her choice to set the story against America’s Vaudeville scene, which is this jarring juxtaposition of gilt and grit and occasionally the grotesque. It’s a breeding ground for secrets and double lives and protagonist Wren Lockhart (illusionist, not magician) has them both; she’s a puzzle I wanted to unlock.
It also made me want to listen to nothing but dark cabaret music for about a week straight, so I’ll leave you with this: