Christopher Nolan’s film version of this novel is one of my favorite films of the past five years. I also liked the novel quite a bit, but it is unfortunate that each version ruins the other a bit. The story is a puzzle, and a very entertaining one; it’s too bad that you can’t come to both versions fresh and spoiler-free.
The novel follows the careers of two turn-of-the-(20th)century stage magicians: Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. Both take their craft very seriously, but a series of confrontations at the beginnings of their respective careers lead to a vicious and sometimes violent rivalry between the two. Both develop innovative acts involving “transportation” of the magician across the stage that challenge explanation (and possibly violate the laws of physics – this book does qualify as speculative fiction). The story is told from the point of view of their descendents, and we get the story through journals from Borden and Angier, presented in turn. We get multiple perspectives on the same events that illuminate each other.
It’s very well-written, and Priest gives us convincing Victorian narrators. It’s also a very fun and engrossing experience overall, and Priest plays with some interesting and subtle metaphors about identity and “otherness.” I do have some reservations at the ending, which goes for a horror-style scare rather than a further meditation on family, career, or any of the other themes that Priest has established, but that’s really my only complaint.
Normally, I recommend reading the book before seeing the movie, but I think I would say see the movie first here. There are a few subtle changes, and the film is tighter with a clear evocation of the themes (and a different ending). Either version will slightly dilute the experience of the other, and I have to say the film is a little better and thus the one that should be seen fresh. But, it’s a great story either way, and I’ll definitely be seeking out more Christopher Priest.