★ ★ ★
Illusionarium by Heather Dixon | Greenwillow Books | May 2015 | Hardcover $17.99
Jonathan is perfectly ordinary. But then—as every good adventure begins—the king swoops into port, and Jonathan and his father are enlisted to find the cure to a deadly plague. Jonathan discovers that he’s a prodigy at working with a new chemical called fantillium, which creates shared hallucinations—or illusions. And just like that, Jonathan is knocked off his path.
This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss.
This book comes out on May 19! That’s only 2 days away, so if this one looks like it’ll appeal to you at least you won’t have to wait very long for it.
Personally, I kind of have mixed feelings about this one but mostly I liked it. I’ll happily rec it for anyone who’s into YA steampunk and portal fantasy.
I didn’t pay much attention to the summary (above) prior to starting the book, so I was completely taken by surprise when Jonathan ended up in that parallel world, exactly what it says on the tin. The book starts off with a terrible epidemic, which Jonathan and his father are hoping to cure. This new chemical, provided by a mysteriously strange version of Jonathan’s father’s mentor, can supposedly help them with their research — but Jonathan’s father won’t use it because it is too dangerous and mind-warping.
Jonathan decides to take matters into his own hands and ends up discovering a completely different version of his own world: Nod’ol. Yes, that’s London backwards. With an extra apostrophe thrown in for no good reason.
Don’t talk to me about superfluous SFF apostrophes. I can’t even.
So what starts off as a vaguely science-y steampunk morphs suddenly into a rather more magic-y portal fantasy involving your typical parallel universes that split apart at some point in the past due to a big game-changing event or whatever. You know how it goes. I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers so I won’t say much about the plot beyond that, though.
The promos also compare Illusionarium to Gail Carriger’s books. The exact term they employ is “sparkling wit” which… I mean, yeah, if you like Carriger’s YA books (I do) you might want to give this one a try. There are several funny and clever bits, but I wouldn’t put it quite on the level of the Parasol Protectorate series, humor-wise.
One thing I did appreciate — and this is a little bit of a spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to — is that Jonathan, despite being our main POV characters, is not actually the prophesied Chosen One. He’s got extra strong powers, but he’s not the only one. A big part of the story is the way he has to come to terms with his own actions and moral code, rather than him saving the universes or rescuing damsels in distress.
That’s something that I simultaneously liked + disliked about this book: the lady characters. I really appreciated that Jonathan’s main concern throughout the book was his sister and mother, rather than just some gal he had a crush on. Everything he did, he did for his family, and that’s refreshing. Hooray for happy families! Hooray for boys who care about their parents and siblings!
That said, something happened to one of the main characters that I think was contrived and unnecessary. Like, OK, the hero needs something to feel super angry about and this person is kinda-sorta important to him and has already served her purpose in the plot… Collateral Angst / Lost Lenore? Those are super common tropes because they can make for more emotionally complicated stories, which is fine, it’s just that for some reason it bothered me a little bit in this instance.
The cover, by the way, doesn’t make any damned sense with the plot. Not that it is a bad cover, nicely steampunk-y and YA-y, but if it makes you think you’re in for some kind of dark romance, well, it’s lying to you.
The only other thing that bugged me about Illusionarium is the footnotes. Normally I kind of like footnotes, or will at least tolerate them! BUT. Normally, I’m reading a physical copy. In the e-book review version I was reading this time, the “footnotes” were actually formatted as endnotes. I really hope that’s not how the final copy ends up, because after like 5 or 6 of these I just gave up and ignored them because flipping to the end and back interrupted the story so much that they weren’t worth bothering with.
Overall, though, this is a fun fast-paced adventure with just enough philosophizing to keep it from being all magic and fistfights and just enough humor to keep it from being too seriously moralizing.
Publication information: Dixon, Heathr. Illusionarium. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2015. EPUB.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.