In Victorian London, illusionist Devil Wix’s chance encounter with dwarf performer Carlo Boldoni results in the dynamic duo of Boldoni & Wix, who soon become headliners at the run-down Palmyra Theatre. Devil is a man with a plan – he wants to own his own theatre, and the Palmyra could be the perfect opportunity, if only it could be wrested from its despicable manager. Meanwhile, unconventional Eliza works as an artist’s model and dreams of a liberated life, not the suffocating domestic sphere her sister inhabits and which Eliza’s aspiring suitor, Jasper Button, would provide. When she meets Jasper’s friend Wix, she’s enchanted by both the scheming illusionist and the prospect of working in the theatre.
The characterization of this novel is strong; theatre performers provide differing levels of eccentricity, and all are souls longing for something they don’t have, from the talented dwarf Boldoni, to the quietly loyal Jasper, to the peculiar maker of automata, Heinrich Bayer. The personal and professional rivalries are engaging. The setting is well-constructed: Victorian London is not a pleasant place for most, and one understands Devil’s desire to provide wonder to its struggling morass of humanity.
The plotting is likewise sure-footed and gripping… for the first half of the novel. The fight for theatrical success, romance and a thriller-like aspect build tension, but are resolved far too soon. This is when the plotting derails, resulting in a reader instantaneously bored with what has become a tale of humdrum domestic life, infidelity, and Lorena Bobbitt-type threats of retribution. One wonders why the book still continues, and it’s all the more disappointing in that it’s exactly the type of life “modern” Eliza supposedly eschewed and for which she spurned the attentions of better men in favor of one whose redeeming qualities are few. Overall, this novel is A+, place-on-the-fridge material for the first half, and a D- for the rest.