Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: The Prestige

Every now and then, on rare occasions, I'll be reading a book, and as I'm reading it, get that feeling that the book I'm holding is something really special.  Despite how much reading I do, (more than probably anyone in my friend circle, though less then I'd like), I only come across a truly special book every so often.  Probably less then once a year.  However, on these auspicious occasions, a book will rise up from the depths of my "to read pile" and ascend to the lofty heights of, er, "books that are really fucking good, and I'd never sell them to a second-hand shop even if I was moving to India" status.  Some books that fit that category are Grapes of Wrath, Catch-22, The Brothers K, all the A Song of Ice and Fire books, the Dark Tower series, Use of Weapons and a smattering of others.  When I was about 3/4 of the way through The Prestige I realized it too would be joining the ranks of those with "never to be parted with" status.

The Prestige is set in Victorian Era England and tells the tale of two young stage magicians.  One, Alfred Borden is a naturally gifted magician, skilled in the necessary arts, and adept at figuring out the secrets behind how other magicians pull off their greatest tricks and illusions.  The other, Rupert Angier, is a gifted performer, but lacking in the ability to unlock the secrets behind even the simplest of tricks and illusions.  The two men, who under different circumstances might have been great friends, wind up as sworn enemies as the two clash during a fraudulent seance conducted by Angier, and attended by Borden.  From this fateful moment, the two men become enemies, and a decades long rivalry of sabotage, deceit, treachery, and violence ensues.  Each man is possessed of the same two goals: become the greatest living stage magician, and bring about the destruction of their rival.

The Prestige is wonderful for a lot of reasons, but for me, what made the novel so amazing is that while it is a book about the art of stage magic and illusion, the novel itself is a magic trick.

The Prestige is told through the context of two descendants of Angier and Borden reading the two men's personal journals, but the main body of the story is essentially told in two parts: Borden's life and career as told in his journal, and Angier's life and career as told in his journal.  There are many events in the two men's lives that overlap, however, the recounting of those events can vary to a great degree.  This had a powerful effect on me as a reader.  In many ways I felt like Borden and Angier were telling their stories directly to me, and I had to somehow figure out who was telling the truth.  However, the whole time, I was very aware of exactly who was telling me the story, and knew that there was no way I could trust or believe two seasoned masters of illusion.  Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole time, like any magic trick, the truth was there to be seen, if only I could make myself see it.  I think it is safe to say that my level of engagement in a novel has never been so high.

The ol' unreliable narrator, or in this case narrators, trick is just one of Priest's clever deceptions.  He cleverly hides clues to the plot within the narrative, and plays with the reader's expectations and assumptions for where the plot is leading.  This is my first experience reading anything by Christopher Priest, and I was amazed with his ability to set up an amazing plot with promises of a huge payoff, and then deliver with artful skill.

I already mentioned that The Prestige is a rare book in the sense that it became one of my all-time favorite reads, but it has another rare quality that I want to highlight: This is a novel that practically begs to be re-read. Not just because it is so wonderful, though that's a great reason to re-read it, but because I think there is a lot of higher understanding and comprehension to be gained from a second, third or fourth reading.  Like I mentioned earlier, Priest is like a magician himself, using sleight of hand (or would it be sleight of pen?) to conceal secrets, clues, and truths within the narrative, and with one reading under the belt, one might be able to read into certain passages and events more deeply and figure out the secret to some of those tricks.

I was incredibly impressed with Priest's literary skill.  Not only did he write an incredibly engaging, expertly plotted, and deceptive novel, but he also impressed with his prose.  The novel is initially told through the eyes of Andrew Westly, a descendant of Borden's, but then the narrative shifts to the two magicians' journals.  What struck me as amazing is that both Angier and Borden have distinctly different styles and voices in their journals.  The shift from Borden to Angier was a bit awkward at first, and had me loathing Angier's stiffer, more "proper" language, but I soon got used to his voice and really appreciated the fact that the two journals read much differently and actually felt like they were truly written by two very different men.

The fact that The Prestige has become one of my favorite books might be shading this review a bit, but I honestly couldn't find much to fault in the novel.  It is superbly written, plotted and executed, and has a great cast of characters.   This is easily the best book I've read in or out of the fantasy genre in a long time, and I think its a book with wide appeal.  So, put down the farm boy-turned-chosen one fantasy and read The Prestige, you wont be disappointed.  Plus, it has Tesla in there as a secondary character.  Tesla the scientist, not the shitty band.

Grade: A+


Anonymous said...

Your review makes me wish I hadn't watched the movie a few years ago. Also, your praise of Christopher Priest's writing style definitely makes me want to look into his other works. All round, a great review!

Ryan said...

Thanks for the kind words Anonymous. You should definitely check this book out. I think I liked yeah, it was really good.

Niall Alexander said...

I don't know about your feelings for The Dark Tower series, Ryan - there I think we'd disagree - but an almighty yes, resounding from the rooftops, on your appreciation of The Prestige. A very fine film, but as a book, simply magnificent.

But hmm, have you read any other Christopher Priest? The Prestige is a personal favourite of mine, but certainly the consensus says there are others that are still better. Specifically I wonder what your thoughts might be on The Islanders, since I read it so recently...

Ryan said...

Niall, I owe you a debt of gratitude. If not for your mentioning of Priest in a blog post a few months back, I probably wouldn't have picked this up. So Thank you.

I haven't read anything else by Priest, his stuff is hard to track down here. I got lucky and found The Prestige at a used book store after having no luck finding it at my usual haunts.

I definitely will be reading more of his works in the future though, and your review of The Islanders makes me want to read that one for sure.

I've also heard good things about The Separation, The Affirmation, and The Glamour from trusted sources.