Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

Illusionarium, by Heather Dixon, was published in 2015 by Greenwillow.

Far, far north, in the cold aerial city of Fata Morgana, apprentice scientist Jonathan is preparing to leave for university. He doesn’t know about fantillium, the newly discovered chemical that allows people to share hallucinations—sometimes wondrous ones, sometimes appalling. He doesn’t know he holds the rare skill to control the hallucinations—to become an illusionist. He doesn’t know that fantillium can also open gateways to parallel worlds. Or that he will soon begin an epic journey, crossing cities and worlds, to save his family, his friends, and his very reality. He doesn’t know any of that…yet. And when he does, will his compass continue to point true north? Or will it break apart?

I haven’t read any fairy tale adaptations recently, so that means Fairy Tale Friday will be on hold again for a little bit. Until then, every Friday enjoy my review of books published in 2015!

Illusionarium is a hodge-podge of steampunk and fantasy, and while I didn’t love it nearly as much as I love Dixon’s Entwined, I thought this was a fabulously unique, humorous, pretty awesome adventure all the same. The humor is definitely more understated than in Entwined, but Jonathan has these hilarious inner monologues and comments that strive to make what could have been scary scenarios into something a little less tension-heavy. It’s as if Dixon pays tribute to the darker steampunk and even dystopian novels by adding those elements to her novel, but with a lighter twist (although, let’s face it, somebody growing another face on their body is scary, humor or not).

I do think you have to approach this book with a grain of salt, however. There’s this weird tension between reality and illusion, and while Jonathan is reversing formulas so that they become anti-formulas, I was thinking both “Is this actually a thing?” and also “Well, wait, it’s an illusion, right? So does it have to be ‘a thing’?” And the idea that illusions, where you are basically making things up, have such a rigid structure behind creating them only contributes to the reality/illusion thing.

Illusionarium has an interesting world (well, worlds) and I wished that we could see a little more. The book felt short to me, but perhaps I was just enjoying myself so much that I didn’t want it to end. But I thought Dixon did a good job with worldbuilding, for the most part, and it was certainly one of the more interesting worlds I’ve read about in a while.

As for plots, no complaints here. There was nothing spectacularly striking, nor was there anything glaringly bad. I did guess a plot reveal, if only because it made the most sense based on what I knew about the characters. Lockwood’s side plot was probably the most disappointing of the book, if only because it was pretty obvious. I do like how Dixon left it slightly ambiguous as to the true meaning of Nod’ol’s “prophecy,” though. And despite some of the tiredness of the plot tropes and the lack of spectacularity overall, I did enjoy Illusionarium.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, some creepy scenes involving mutation.

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk, Young Adult

Sky came first, the thoughts pulling themselves from my head and fingers. I spattered stars over the theater with quiet movements, pinpricks of light, and willed them to sparkle over the room. You could reach up and flick them.

I envisioned ice, and it formed upon itself in the center of the stage. The energy radiated from my fingers and neck like a fever and I pushed it out, the wake forming into white tendrils and flakes and shimmering around the audience, in the aisles and up the gilded walls.

Towers grew. Rows of housetops, vertical docks, and the observatory dome. Bridges formed over the audience, making them gasp. Airships made of ice hung, connected to docking towers with delicate ice threads. The theater filled with ice of every transparency, forming the city I knew by heart. I’d even created canals of generator offal, the rivers of white rolling over the sides of the city and billowing into the feet of the audience.

Overall Review:

Illusionarium, while lacking some of the funnier, and downright crazy, moments of Dixon’s other work Entwined, is still funny—and a darn good story, too. The book grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn’t let me go, despite some of the weaker plot elements and the moments of “Is that really how that works?” It is not a spectacular novel by any means, but it is an entertaining one, and the world is original enough, and developed well enough, to feel fresh.

You can buy this here: Illusionarium

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