First presented to their audiences was a promise of misdirection that seemed to confirm what those in attendance knew. Then came an execution of a seemingly impossible act. Immediately thereafter - the prestige, that astonishing and inexplicable result of a successful illusion. Necessarily, the titular third stage of this achievement is of paramount importance, its success dependent on the secrecy of a comparatively ordinary act. Yet if the deed itself is just so extraordinary as the prestige, if magic beggars illusion as a presentation veracious to the senses, then what is magic if not the introduction of the unprecedented?
Nine decades after the successes of two rival Victorian stage magicians subsided to obscurity, their descendants - an unimaginative journalist and a peeraged inheritor - are brought together by the latter's deceit to solve a weird and terrible mystery in consequence of their ancestors' bitter feud. In the course of their lengthy written accounts, one of these prestidigitators is revealed a principled, industrious thaumaturgist of working-class stock, the other an equally sedulous showman of aristocratic lineage and visionary inspiration. Proving with finality that what was once imagined can be realized in actuality by dint of electromotive appurtenance, one of these obsessed entertainers duplicates the other's ingenious trick by means as extraordinary as its effect, for which both men and their descendants suffer fatal and enduring tragedy. Engaging their common profession and one another with fundamentally dissimilar tactics, neither man fully comprehends how flawed, vulnerable and ultimately proficient the other is until both have fallen inexorably to ruin.
Boasting characterization far more involved and ramified than its speculative elements, Priest's novel was written almost entirely in the first person. Uniformly organized, its narratives are comprised of the following contents: an introduction by the reporter which initiates the book's frame story; a brief autobiography scribed by the workingman performer; an unsettling anecdote disclosed by the patrician scion that supplements and furthers the frame; the diaries of her accomplished forebear; a thrilling conclusion in which the last of many ghastly and wondrous secrets are laid bare. As usual, Priest's prose throughout is easily read. Though the mundane journalist refers to the polish of his Victorian progenitor's writings as labored, both his vernacular and that of his sworn opponent evinces a balance of contemporary accessibility and some verisimilitude of Victorian eloquence.
Through his characters' exploits, Priest assays personal themes pertaining to duplicity and obsession, as well as greater cultural concerns of the period - entrepreneurial ambitions, advancements of entertainment and the wonders of emerging technologies at the dawn of modernity. Resonant with a fin-de-siècle ethos, this tale's protagonists and their feats bespeak an influence owed the era's luminaries of legerdemain: John Nevil Maskelyne, the Davenport Brothers, Ching Ling Foo and his famous competitor, William Robinson. Faith, both men's careers are advanced and forever altered through fictional interactions with Maskelyne, Foo and especially one Nikola Tesla, colorfully though credibly depicted as the unwitting originator of his employer's supreme achievement and grisly downfall.
Readers who open this volume expecting a narrative identical to that of Christopher Nolan's exceptional feature film adaptation are likely to be surprised and pleased by how very different these two tellings are. Unsurprisingly, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's screenplay further exploits the virtues of its medium with an array of visual metaphors and a painstakingly intricate - though wholly accessible - narrative bereft of linearity. To confound expectations of those who read the book, the Nolans also altered numerous key plot points, excised and modified many characters, and jettisoned sub-plots and frame story alike. Hence, Nolan's picture is a sleek, plot-driven condensate of Priest's phenomenal totality.
Hardly enough contemporary science-fiction literature exists which elicits horror, awe and inquisitiveness from its readers. His best work confirms that Priest knows full well what the genre deserves and how any given subject is best broached in a context of spectacular possibility. The Prestige is more than a love letter to an age of unparalleled progress and those assiduous practitioners of its most mysterious entertainment. In those thematic and stylistic traditions established by Wells and Lovecraft, it's also a tribute and cautionary yarn to the obsession of excellence.