Reading Heather Dixon's Illusionarium feels like riding a particularly rough roller coaster, and the first few hills are doozies. Dixon barely establishes the book's fantasy world — a hastily sketched British-derived steampunk setting, with the requisite airships and an alternate version of London called Arthurise — before she upends it.
A highly contagious plague called the Venen is killing off the women of this world, turning their veins black, then their flesh. The queen is sick and dying; the king is a heartless tyrant. The royals' primary agent of medical research, Lady Florel, appears to have gone mad. It's a lot for 16-year-old protagonist Jonathan Gouden to take in all at once. It's even harder for readers to digest. It's a great deal of information, with no sense of what normal looks like for Jonathan and his family before things fall apart.
And just as rapidly, Dixon introduces a strange new twist: a substance called fantillium, which, when inhaled, lets users create mental projections which are only visible and tangible to other people currently under the influence. Only a dozen pages into the book, Jonathan and his scientist father have been pressed into the king's service to cure the Venen, introduced to fantillium, and shown how to use it for medical research. Both of them turn out to be talented illusionists, the rare fantillium users who produce cogent projections.
And before a hundred pages have passed, Jonathan's mother and sister are dying of the Venen, while Jonathan himself has been pulled into a dystopic parallel anti-London (called Nod'ol, naturally) where Lady Florel claims she's a queen, and demands that Jonathan represent her in a fantillium-charged imagination contest called the Illusionarium. His prize if he wins: The Venen cure. If he loses: Repeated, gruesome, painful illusory death.
Once Jonathan enters the competition, the book finally slows down to take a few long-overdue breaths. The Illusionarium section is Dixon's most developed sequence. After so much rushing to get to exactly this spot in the story, she stretches out with elaborate descriptions of the projections Jonathan and the other competitors create for the titillation of the entertainment-hungry, fantillium-breathing audience. The prospect of a jaded, sensation-starved society enjoying a public blood-sport populated by unwilling players is awfully familiar from other recent young-adult novels, but Dixon certainly finds a novel form for it. Still, the level of detail she puts into the action segments, at the expense of world-building or character-building, suggests Illusionarium was intended more as a movie treatment than a book.
Granted, Dixon has a knack for giddy economy. She sketches out characters in a few brief lines: Lockwood, an arrogant guard Jonathan's age, is "sharp. Crisp ... and so confident it was off-putting." In just a few words, Dixon sums him up well enough to explain everything else he does in the novel. The same goes for Jonathan's chief Illusionarium rival, Constantine, who wears a snarling animal mask and attacks Jonathan at first sight. There's no mistaking who these characters are, or what their purpose will be in the story. They're one-dimensional, but in all cases, that one dimension is colorful and heightened.
But Jonathan himself is a cipher, defined mostly by his concern for his family and his awkwardness around girls. And the world around him is similarly a blur, a few familiar steampunk tropes that whizz by on the way to the action. Dixon actually wedges in footnotes to explain a few of the things the story glosses over, though she just as often uses them for self-serving snark from Jonathan. But a few sidelined explanations aside, she never gives this world much weight.
And that's a pity, because weighty things happen with clockwork efficiency. Characters die. Big reveals change the nature of the world, in ways that would seem momentous if the world was better established. Jonathan makes a series of major discoveries, though they come with frustrating ease: Surely when he learns to manipulate time and space itself with fantillium, such world-changing developments should take more than a breezy page or two. But this is a world that alters easily and often, and as a result, it often winds up feeling like no more than a fantillium illusion itself.
Tasha Robinson is a senior editor at The Dissolve.