Post details: Books of Magic


Permalink 11:58:41 am, Categories: Review, Books, 632 words   English (UK)

Books of Magic

Magic is having something of a revival at the moment. There are two films about magicians doing the rounds, The Prestige and The Illusionist. I've not yet seen either, this is a book review.

I recently read two books about magicians:

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke


Carter Beats the Devil is a fascinating glimpse into the world of professional stage magic. It is a detailed biography of ‘Carter the Great’ a stage magician of the golden age. From his earliest beginnings as he learnt the simplest sleight of hand to his elevation to one of the best known magicians of the day, touring the world and respected by the great Harry Houdini. The book describes exquisitely both the private and stage life of this remarkable man; yet it's style is never dry, the book becomes an exciting thriller as we hear of his long term rivalry with Mysterioso. The denouement of that particular episode of his life is both gripping and shocking.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell takes us to a different time altogether. At the end of the 17th Century, it charts the revival of magic in England, real magic. Focussing on the lives of two of the greatest magicians England has seen in the past 300 years it shows their different approaches to magic, and how their great mistrusts nearly destroyed everything. Written in three parts, the book is available in a single paperback or as a set of three, totalling some 800 pages. Each part reads very well on its' own, but it's important to work through all three to understand the full complexities of practical performance of magic as it was in this time. Well worth the effort.


Both of these books are fiction. They are astounding debut novels by their respective authors, and ought to be so different, and yet there are similarities that compelled by to compare them.

Carter Beats the Devil focuses on Charles Carter, a real stage magician known as Carter the Great and having a large measure of success and worldwide fame. The book reads like a biography and Gold has carefully worked up a skeleton around the few facts we have about Carter's life and fleshed it out with a gripping and well told thriller. The true nature of this fictionalised biography is explained in the foreword and reading through the book it's pleasing to bear in mind the grains of truth underlying the story.

Susanna Clarke's work is a much more confusing entity. Not only does it read from beginning to end like a true biography, but it is written in an early 19th century prose that, whilst it takes a little getting used to, begins to convince. Although you know in your head that this is fiction, you start to fall for it. When she describes the magic the Mr. Norrell performs at York, you long to seek out historical archive, to look for the events described. Even if you don't believe in the magic itself, you become convinced that there must have been real events that people interpreted as magic. How much of it is true? I won't go into that here. I think you should read the book. Then if you still want to know, Susanna's website can give you a fuller picture.

Neither of these books are perfect. Many people have taken objection to the ending of Carter, I won't spoil it by saying why, but I didn't have a problem with it. Perhaps I had my own expectations of the ending, I wasn't particularly surprised. The prose style in Mr. Norrell can grate from time to time and both books suffer from the occasional slow passage. But as debut's go, they both show enormous promise.

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