The Magician’s Lie is a stunning debut novel by Greer Macallister. Released in January of this year, it’s been slowly gaining momentum as more and more readers discover this wonderful historical fiction through natural word-of-mouth praise (highly indicative of a good book) as opposed to a big marketing budget.
Taking place in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Officer Virgil Holt wanders into a playhouse where a female illusionist called ‘The Amazing Arden’ is performing her signature Halved Man routine. It’s a terrifying act and the beautiful woman on stage seems to be in the throes of a frenzy, hacking away at a box with a man inside. Her victim cries out, blood flows from the open gashes of the box, and Arden finally splits it in two and then pushes each half to the side. Virgil knows it’s just an illusion, but it bothers him.
It bothers him even more when he’s called back to the playhouse to find a man cut in two at the bottom of a trap door under the stage. The Amazing Arden, it seems, is on the run.
On the way back to the station, he finds Arden while stopping for a bite to eat. Although Virgil is not in the best of health, he’s able to subdue her. He brings her back to the small, one-room station on horseback. She tries to escape a couple of times, and with her two-toned eye – the one that supposedly gives her magical powers, he puts several handcuffs on her wrists and ankles, binding her to the chair – all while refraining to look her in the eye, just in case.
That’s when Arden begins to tell her side of the story while pleading her innocence. She takes Officer Holt back to her childhood where she describes the demon who chased her away from the comforts of home and how she wound up as The Amazing Arden. It’s a coming-of-age story filled with beauty and pain, of uncertainty and eventual strength, of love and hate – and a little bit of real magic.
But this story in itself is Arden’s final trick. There is indeed a demon chasing her, and she needs to be free. If she can’t convince Officer Holt to let her go, she’ll surely be sent to the hangman even if she’s innocent. Arden weaves her tale and slowly engages Officer Holt and one by one, the handcuffs come off. Will her story be enough to pull off one final disappearing act?
While Officer Virgil Holt’s verdict shall remain a secret, her story is a success with the reader. It is captivating, magical, terrifying, and wondrous. I loved every word.
Before she became The Amazing Arden, her name was Ada Bates and she initially came from a wealthy family. He mother chose to marry for love and was eventually disowned, taking Ada with her from days of private tutors to public school in a small town. She left home at an early age after her mother refused to do anything about the boy who kept viciously abusing her. From there she became a maid at the Biltmore estate, fell in love, left for New York City, was heartbroken, left on her own accord and became a dancer on a chorus line where she caught the attention of a female magician who needed another dancer in her act.
Ada’s youthful character grows with majestic leaps as she works alongside the magician in a traveling show. Eschewing romance for a serious career after experience with heartbreak, abuse, family mistakes, and important lessons taught by the master at Biltmore, Ada slowly becomes the first-billed act underneath the magician’s name. Eventually, she takes over the entire company. She’s strong, capable, and oftentimes brutal – but her success is outstanding. It’s also her downfall. Pictures of Arden are plastered everywhere, and it doesn’t take long for her childhood nemesis to come calling.
The historical milieu is a time period of unlimited opportunity. It was a time when anyone could disappear and reinvent the self, a time when anything was possible. Places in American history are beautifully rendered such as the Biltmore Estate, owned and built by the Vanderbilts. And famous historical events are tied into the story such as the infamous Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago where over 600 theatergoers perished.
To make the story even more dreamy and magical, the author introduced the smallest measure of magical realism – more like a hint. It wasn’t overplayed and it wasn’t front and center. The dreamlike quality of the possible paranormal hung delicately in the background, quietly mentioned on very few occasions. That magical possibility paired with the juxtaposition of Ada/Arden’s occupation as an illusionist elevated The Magician’s Lie to a literary show worthy of a standing ovation.
Author Greer Macallister invents a masterpiece which does for the reader what The Amazing Arden does for her crowds – they both astound, amaze, spellbind, and entertain. A bewitched five stars from my vantage point.
The Magician’s Lie
by Greer Macallister