1920's New York? Jazz and magic? Prohibition and flappers? Speakeasies and Model T's? Houdini and secret societies? To say that I wanted to read Born of Illusion once I read the synopsis is a gross understatement. I needed to read it; it reminded me vaguely of Libba Bray's The Diviners while still coming across as a totally original undertaking. Happily for me, Teri Brown's first in a series delivers all that it promises and more. Once I started, I knew I was in for a treat and I was 100% right. It's fun, completely entertaining, filled with dimensional characters, and wholly atmospheric. It reads way too fast and is over too soon. The appeal for Born of Illusion is readily apparent, creatively developed and will make fans across the board.
I've always loved historical fiction, and young adult historical fiction is rapidly growing and becoming more popular with readers. With a focus on one of my favorite eras to read about, Born of Illusion was a prefect fit. With a dab hand, Brown creates a visually striking rendition of life in New York during the Roaring Twenties. This is an author who can create an enveloping feel for her setting - the attitudes, the people, the time shown are all captured so well. The historical details are spot on and subtly woven into the fabric of the narrative. Thankfully, Teri Brown isn't an author to infodump, through either dialogue or deed; instead the world main character Anna inhabits is imparted easily through her perspective or on her adventures through New York.
Anna is a great main character. Friends with pickpockets and circus curiosities, her life hasn't been an easy or normal one; working and travelling with her mother, their relationship is a mix of love and jealousy, protectiveness and isolation. Anna both loves and hates her mother - their life is far from what she wants. Their life until New York had been a nomadic one; full of fleeing from cops, escaping from jail, and/or conning believable supernaturalists. Anna desires stability, a stationary life without seances or danger. One of the things I liked best about the younger Van Housen is that she is a proactive protagonist. She isn't passive; Anna does things instead of letting life happen to her. Limited by the constant control and professional envy of her mother, Anna's struggle for both independence and recognition is believable and endearing.
Another complication to Anna's secret-wrought existence is that she is capable of the supernatural acts her mother pretends to possess. Fearful of being used, or of winding up in a freakshow, Anna hides her "psychical" abilities from the world. Capable of communication with the dead, feeling other's emotions and of visions of the future, Anna's abilities grow from a minor plot point to an important aspect of both her life and the novel. The author doesn't substitute magic for personality or personal growth; rather Anna's abilities grow and change as she does as a person. Alone for most of her life, her fear of discovery further adds to Anna's isolation and her search to feel safe. The magic of Born of Illusion comes in many guises, and while all weren't detailed, the ideas Brown uses are interesting and left open for more explanation in the forthcoming sequels.
There is a slight love triangle in the pages of Born of Illusion, but, most strangely, it neither irked me as much as I'd have predicted, nor did it take focus away from the real plot of the novel. Anna is attracted and interested in two very different young men: Colin Emerson Archer ("Cole"), a quiet but intelligent gentleman, and Owen, a more footloose and fancy-free version. Both men appeal to different sides of Anna's character. Her interest in both is well-developed and adds to the story. I can't say I was equally fond of both (Team Cole!), but I could understand what each represented to the conflicted main character.
The antagonist of the story is...decent. Despite a few harrowing scenes, I thought the villain lacked a solid presence in the novel. That could be because Brown purposefully keeps both the reader and Anna in the dark as to the identity of the Big Bad, but I thought more information or appearances would have added more suspense and tension to the novel. That said, with minor antagonists caught but the main one escaping to villain another day (perhaps in Born of Deception?) there is enough resolution and satisfaction in how the first story was concluded.
My only question is how I am supposed to wait until 2014 to read the next book in this marvelous, fun, exciting series. Teri Brown proves she can write an involving, atmospheric, entertaining and above all, fun novel here. A fast read, but not without depth or complication, Born of Illusion is a great start to a promising series that blends historical fiction and magic superbly.