Illusionists in Victorian England take center stage in Thomas’ latest romance (Constance, 2013, etc.).
Devil Wix is more ambitious than his fellow entertainers and wants to do more than eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. The captivating showman dreams of managing his own theatrical company and is willing to go to almost any lengths to achieve his goal. Following a chance encounter, Devil teams up with resourceful dwarf Carlo Bonomi, and the act thrives when the partners present a gory illusion each evening at the run-down Palmyra Theater in London's East End. Soon, the pair ally themselves with Heinrich, a strange Swiss inventor obsessed with automata; Jasper, a wax sculptor and childhood friend who’s privy to Devil’s darkest memory; and art student/life model Eliza, an aspiring actress whose kindness and steely determination bind the diverse and often contentious group together. Eliza falls in love with Devil, much to Jasper’s disappointment, but Devil’s not used to dealing with a woman who demands respect. Outwitting his opponent in a card game, Devil gains ownership of the Palmyra and directs his efforts toward making the venue the foremost entertainment hub in the East End. As he discovers the formidable costs of refurbishing the theater and attracting a fickle public, Devil borrows money for renovations and publicity, auditions new acts to keep the show fresh and pays scant attention to the dangerous mental state of one member of the troupe. Thomas enthusiastically explores a unique subject and skillfully creates the sights, atmosphere and sensations of British theater during this era; but with each melodramatic event, the plot becomes wispier and wispier until it finally vanishes into thin air. Predictably, relationships, attitudes and the courses of lives change before the story takes one final gasp, but by then, even die-hard fans may find themselves struggling to get through the drawn-out tale.
An excellent premise, but the story lacks magic.