I first encountered Kiersten White’s work a couple of years ago, when I read her Paranormalcy trilogy. I enjoyed both it and The Chaos of Stars, but found Mind Games to be an enticing premise ruined by inadequate characterisation, rambling narrative, and too many jumps back and forth in time; it felt like White was experimenting with stream of consciousness and achronological narrative, but the story never went beyond the kind of draft that belongs at the bottom of a deep, dark drawer. It was with some trepidation, then, that I picked up Illusions of Fate. I knew I wanted to read it, because I had enjoyed so much of White’s work – and look at the cover! – but I worried it would follow the trend of Mind Games.
In this novel, White’s created a darkly beautiful world, complete with punctuation and time that only moves forward. I loved the protagonist, Jessamin (who, by the way, is a woman of colour, which we don’t see nearly often enough in fantasy), for her stubbornness; it endeared her to me that, as a woman from a nation under the thumb of a powerful empire, she stood up for herself, but also that she could be so short-sighted as to get herself and her friends into trouble with her arrogance. Arrogance is, in my opinion, a difficult trait to pull off in fiction, and often it either seems like it’s a fake flaw, because the character is just awesome and knows it, or else is shown to be an utter idiot who should have listened to others. Jessamin is neither. Sometimes her conviction that she is right gets her into trouble, and sometimes it saves her.
My chief complaint would be that this is not part of a larger series. So much of the book sets up a world fraught with issues of colonialism, classism, racism and sexism, with magical power in the hands of the white nobility being used to secretly bolster these hierarchies of power. There is so much more I would like to see of this world, and at the end, Jessamin defeats the antagonist who has been plaguing her but it doesn’t really change anything.
This ties in to the other issue I had with the book: the ending. With all the threads of political and magical strife the novel brings together, I had expected a bit … more. The climax of the novel just seemed to fizzle out and, as I said, doesn’t address the wider conflicts that are the backdrop of the story. It was the kind of ending to a novel that a sequel or series could easily recover from – with the immediate enemy gone, it is time to deal with the systems of power that created him – but it just wasn’t enough for a standalone book, in my opinion.
Although I felt let down by the last twenty or so pages of the book, that doesn’t overshadow the fact that the first 250 pages were brilliant – and if I’m wrong and there is a sequel in the works, then this book is beyond perfect. If you’re a fan of Kiersten White’s other books, or enjoy Victorian-themed dark fantasy, you absolutely must read Illusions of Fate.