Friday, March 10, 2017

'The Illusionist's Apprentice' by Kristy Cambron


Harry Houdini’s one-time apprentice holds fantastic secrets about the greatest illusionist in the world. But someone wants to claim them . . . or silence her before she can reveal them on her own.

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.


The cover and blurb of this new story really drew me in to give it a try.

Elliot Matthews and Connor Finnegan are FBI agents investigating claims of fraud. Spiritualist Horace Stapleton supposedly raises the corpse of Victor Peale, who'd been dead for twenty years. The man who emerges from the coffin falls dead in front of the crowd. The public believe his body was indeed raised for a few moments. But the less gullible can't dismiss the murder of his impersonator. Because as Harry Houdini famously said, 'Returning from the dead is humanly impossible.'

Wren Lockhart is Houdini's former apprentice, whose name was found in Peale's coat pocket. A well known illusionist herself, she's pressed by the agents to help them get to the bottom of the incident, since suspicion of Stapleton will extend to anyone involved in her line of work. Until the matter is cleared, she's guilty by association. Agent Matthews never expects to lose his heart to the stand-offish young woman. And she certainly never intends to let her guard down for long enough to let him grow on her.

The theme of spiritualism permeates the story. The main characters all make it clear that they can't stand seeing people who have lost loved ones getting their emotions manipulated. Houdini always sought to expose these charlatans, and his apprentice inherited his same spirit. She makes it clear that she prefers to be known as an illusionist rather than a magician, because the truth is evident in the titles.

I think the best part of the book is not the plot, but Wren's character. She's a person with interesting contradictions. She's flamboyant enough to stand out wherever she goes, yet on the other hand she's an intensely private person who shuns the spotlight whenever she can. It turns out her public persona is a mask for the softness and vulnerability she conceals. A series of flashbacks from her past, when she was simply Jennifer Charles, help us understand her better, especially when it comes to the choice of her stage name, Wren. As Elliot discovers, like that little bird, it's all to do with waiting for her to trust another person enough to open up when she's ready.

The revelations coming forth in the romance seemed a bit one-sided at times. We get unfolding insight into Wren's former life, but not so much about Elliot's. Although likeable, for the most part he remains just a handsome, perceptive FBI agent with not many glimpses into his past to show what makes him tick. Since his background isn't part of this particular story line I can see why the author chose not to go there, but it still felt like something was missing, and I was glad when he did reveal something significant at one stage. It just helped to humanise him.

The colourful 1920s background was fun, although maybe the overall effect wasn't quite as sensational and hair-raising as I expected from the blurb. It was a quirky twist that they were trying to prove Stapleton's innocence even though he didn't want to proven innocent, because it would debunk his supernatural claims. He didn't really come into the story as a character to the extent that I expected. For anyone disappointed to discover that Houdini had already been dead for a few years at the start, don't worry, he appears in some of the flashbacks. My favourite takeaway is that Jenny/Wren's real skill is in making beauty grow out of nothing, something you don't have to be a true illusionist to practice.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

3.5 stars

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