The Prestige (Movie Tie In)
by Christopher Priest
Review by Barry Newton
Tor Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0765317346
Date: 19 September, 2006 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Merriam-Webster's online dictionary leads its definition of "prestige" with the etymology--from Middle French and Latin terms for conjuror's trick, illusion,. This sense is lost in modern usage, but it's the one intended by Christopher Priest in choosing his title. He extends this definition in the novel to include the effect of a trick or illusion on the viewer, and later takes it even further. The way he does this is, in itself, a reward for the reader.
The story begins and ends in modern times, but is actually about the lives of two stage magicians in Victorian England. Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden meet in a contentious first encounter during a séance held by Angier, who was desperately trying to make ends meet and support his pregnant wife. Borden arrives to expose him as a fraud, and uphold the moral character of all magicians. This proves personally disastrous to Angier, who becomes a lifelong enemy. As their careers progress, the two are continually studying each other's acts, either to steal a technique or develop a superior variant. They also take opportunities to disrupt their rivals' presentations, shouting from the audience, ruining the prestige of a particular trick, and damaging the reputation and--prestige--of its performer.
For a story about two magicians, very little of the art is actually given away by the author. Many card tricks, for example, depend upon "forcing" a particular card upon a volunteer from the audience; yet there is no description of how this is actually accomplished. One can infer much from the description of various techniques, but no reader finishes this story any more of a magician than before starting it.
At the height of their respective careers, each has a version of a spectacular illusion called The Transported Man by Borden, and In a Flash by Angier, which basically revolves around teleportation, with the use of vivid electrical effects. The revelation of their differing approaches to this trick comprises the climactic matter of the book. It is difficult to identify any one scene or passage as the actual climax of this story, told as it is in diary and journal entries written in very convincing 19th century English style. This book has been described elsewhere as "leisurely," and I have to agree. But its many twists and turns are exposed in a series of startling revelations, told as the viewpoint shifts from one to the other
The movie made from this story omits the modern framing at beginning and end, and is said by many to be an improvement. I look forward to the comparison, as the book, though not a quick read, is very satisfying. Mr. Priest has enhanced his standing considerably with The Prestige, and has, incidentally, ensured that I will never hear that word in quite the same way as before.