Review: Born of Illusion by Teri Brown

Monday, May 27, 2013
Title: Born of Illusion
Author: Teri Brown
Genre: supernatural fiction, young adult, historical fiction
Series: Born of Illusion #1
Pages: 384
Published: expected June 11 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 5/5

Anna Van Housen is thirteen the first time she breaks her mother out of jail. By sixteen she’s street smart and savvy, assisting her mother, the renowned medium Marguerite Van Housen, in her stage show and séances, and easily navigating the underground world of magicians, mediums and mentalists in 1920’s New York City. Handcuffs and sleight of hand illusions have never been much of a challenge for Anna. The real trick is keeping her true gifts secret from her opportunistic mother, who will stop at nothing to gain her ambition of becoming the most famous medium who ever lived. But when a strange, serious young man moves into the flat downstairs, introducing her to a secret society that studies people with gifts like hers, he threatens to reveal the secrets Anna has fought so hard to keep, forcing her to face the truth about her past. Could the stories her mother has told her really be true? Could she really be the illegitimate daughter of the greatest magician of all?

Born of Illusion is the first book in a new series. Each book in the series will introduce a new historical figure, whose legend is shrouded in magic, along with the young woman whose fate is irrevocably tied to his. The through line in each of the books will be The Ghost Club, the real life secret society that was founded in 1862 by the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Conan Doyle, and W. B. Yeats to advance mankind’s knowledge of the paranormal. The first three books in the series will deal with Houdini, Aleister Crowley and Rasputin.

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.


  1. 1920's are definetly one of my favorite time periods. The whole Great Gatsby thing has got me in the mood for some good '20s books(: This one sounds AMAZING!! Great Review(:

  2. I love the 1920s, but the love triangle has me cringing a little. I think I'll wait till this entire trilogy is out and see how the love triangle plays out. I am really excited to see you loved this, though. It seems fantastic, so hopefully if the trilogy ends well, I'll be picking this up in two years. I've been burned too many times by faulty trilogy conclusions to take another chance sadly. Still, great review, Jessie! :)

  3. Oh! When I read this, they hadn't added series information to Goodreads, so I thought this was a standalone. Hmm, honestly not sure how I feel about a sequel.

    But in any case, this was definitely a really great book, and I was impressed with Brown's handling of the time period and Anna herself.


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