A Pleasant Historical Romance That Stumbles as a Mystery
The Illusionist’s Apprentice
by Kristy Cambron
Publication Date: March 7, 2017
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Not all illusions happen on the stage.
Wren Lockhart, apprentice to master illusionist Harry Houdini, uses life on a vaudeville stage to escape the pain of her past. She continues her career of illusion after her mentor’s death, intent on burying her true identity.
But when a rival performer’s act goes tragically wrong, the newly formed FBI calls on Wren to speak the truth—and reveal her real name to the world. She transfers her skills for misdirection from the stage to the back halls of vaudeville, as she finds herself the unlikely partner in the FBI’s investigation. All the while Houdini’s words echo in her mind: Whatever occurs, the crowd must believe it’s what you meant to happen. She knows that if anyone digs too deep, secrets long kept hidden may find their way to the surface—and shatter her carefully controlled world.
Set during one of the richest, most vibrant eras in American history, this Jazz Age novel of illusion, suspense, and forgotten pasts is perfect for fans of The Magician’s Lie, challenging all to find the underpinnings of faith on their own life’s stage.
At ReadLove we try hard not to include spoilers in our reviews. But in order to explain the low rating this book receives, spoilers are unfortunately a necessity. So if you haven’t read the book yet and wish to make up your own mind about it, then please do not read below the line!
There is no way to say it but bluntly: For all its good points, The Illusionist’s Apprentice begins and ends problematically, and abounds in inconsistencies throughout. It’s a shame, too, because Cambron writes clearly, has a talent for characterization and chronicling a budding romance, and is certainly skilled at bringing to life an historic era, in this case the Jazz Age. In fact, her easy-to-read prose kept me turning the pages long after my disappointment urged me to abandon the book. I won’t list every troublesome moment in the novel, but I will present a sample.
A quick summary before moving on: On New Year’s Eve in 1926, a resurrection is staged in a Massachusetts cemetery by a famed illusionist. The dead man is revived (supposedly), says a few halting words, then dies. The illusionist is arrested for murder and the FBI investigates.
The first problem is that the mystery should be in ruins by page 14. The corpse to be revived has been buried for twenty-three years. A doctor, not involved with the deception, is asked to attest that the corpse shows “no signs of life”. He solemnly states that it doesn’t. And yet, he does not find it significant that the body — before being recalled to life — is not the least bit putrefied or decomposed, a sure sign of either life or a very recent burial. Even the author comments that it should be “a decayed corpse” with “rotting flesh”. (Additionally, the man’s clothing and his simple “wooden box” had apparently undergone no deterioration after a quarter of a century underground, which surprises no one, not even the inquisitive press.)
Skipping ahead to the end: The solution to the resurrection trick is given casually, with a vague reference to a tunnel and a “piping system” for air. The reader is left with gaping jaw when she considers the myriad difficulties such a feat of engineering would encounter in 1926. The logistics of digging a long tunnel, especially in secret, are staggering. How do you precisely locate the coffin you’re aiming for? How do you remove hundreds of cubic feet worth of dirt, and where do you put it? How long would the project take — days, weeks? And all this occurs while the ground, we are told, is so frozen that a hole can’t be dug to plant a tree!
As regards the “piping system”, it would be interesting to know what air recycling technology was installed that prevented an unconscious man confined for hours in a narrow box from suffocating on his own CO2. How did evidence of that system vanish when the box was exhumed? And, given that the weather above ground was “frigid”, how did a man whose heartbeat had been artificially slowed to the point where a pulse was undetectable not freeze to death lying all those hours in thin clothes six feet below the surface?
Occasionally, the reader runs into oddities such as these:
— Even after being shot, Wren, our heroine, adamantly refuses to help the FBI, saying, “I can’t continue with the investigation, not if it means giving up my privacy.” A few chapters later, when Amberley Dover does the same thing for the same reason, Wren expresses her disbelief that her one-time friend won’t help the agents: “When people were dying, matters of reluctance should be the first to fly out the window.”
— While discussing details of the case, agent Elliot remarks on how the name of the revived-then-dead man matches that of the original occupant of the grave: “Stapleton wants us to think they were one and the same, but it has to be two men going by the same name. It’s the only possible explanation…” Three pages later, Wren mentions that the man who died had no identification (and therefore, no verifiable name at all).
— On page 158, Elliot states that the original toxicology report “showed nothing of substance”. Later, on 261, he tells Wren that “the original report named the foxglove plant as the probable culprit…”
Elsewhere, while the Jazz Age generally comes across well, all its glitter can’t hide an anachronism or two. But as with Shakespeare’s mechanical clock, we can read over small lapses without a blink. Harder to ignore is the fact that the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for whom our hero works, did not operate under that name until 1935, years after the events in the book. Before then, it was known as the Bureau of Investigation, or the BOI. What an excellent opportunity was missed to add realism and color to the novel, and to educate the reader!
In her Acknowledgments, the author mentions that a circle of Suspense/Mystery writer friends laid out the early framework for her plot. Continued assistance from them would have been helpful. Rightly or wrongly, my impression is that while she excels at writing Romance and can maintain a suspenseful plot, Ms. Cambron has yet to master the intricacies involved in creating a seamless mystery.
— Jennifer Michelle
2 of 5 Hearts. A Pleasant Historical Romance That Stumbles as a Mystery.
It hurts my heart to have to say negative things about a writer who’s so obviously earnest about her craft and her faith. But the fact is, The Illusionist’s Apprentice lacks cohesion and believability. It has style, occasional wit, smooth prose, and a strong Christian element, but only the romantic storyline is fully worth the reader’s investment of time.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Fiction Guild and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of The Illusionist’s Apprentice in exchange for an honest review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”