Today’s book came highly recommended to me, so it pains me to say that in truth, I was more than a little disappointed by it. It’s like when your friend recommends a movie by telling you that it’s the most life-changing thing since Iron Man, so you go in expecting some Winter Soldier levels of amazingness, and instead you get Guardians of the Galaxy. I mean. My point is, I was really expecting it to be better, and I’m sad to say that it’s not. Illusions of Fate, by Kiersten White, is about the young Jessamin Olea, who’s studying at a school in Albion far from her native island country of Melei. By chance, she happens to meet Lord Finley Ackerly one night, and she’s immediately swept up in a world of intrigue, romance, and, of course, high treason.
This is a (too) fast-paced book that begins with a brilliant premise: what if magic was concentrated only in a few bloodlines and those people with magic were the leaders of many, if not all, countries? Suddenly being royalty or of royal descent doesn’t make you a useless figurehead—the aristocracy wield real power, and have all the privilege that’s associated with positions of power. To make the real-world comparisons even stronger, Melei is a country of dark-skinned people, and Albion is the Victorian England-esque country that has conquered and subjugated it. A fantasy novel with serious discussions of race and privilege through the lens of magic? It’s like Christmas came early for me. Unfortunately, though the premise is indeed amazing, the story itself is limited because White doesn’t fully engage with the world and with the (admittedly tough) themes she chose to utilize.
Spoilers for the whole book after the cut.
To begin with, White does an excellent job of setting up Jessamin’s place in Albion: as a person whose physical features label her as Melenese, she immediately becomes the target of microaggressions and racism at her white, Alben school. Her classmates brim with cruel jibes and crude drawings, and her teachers don’t think she has talent or potential, despite test scores to the contrary. Jessa herself continuously thinks about how Alben women must be modest and proper and how when the Alben people smile, it is often meaningless. Even the people who later become Jessa’s friends first notice her because they think of her as “exotic”. It paints a fantastic picture of what it’s really like to live as a person of color in a time and place where discrimination is common and expected, and it really makes you empathize with the character and her circumstances.
We are also given a little history about how the relations between Albion and Melei have progressed. Jessa’s father, an Alben professor, went to Melei to study the Melenese culture, and although he’s married, he took Jessa’s mother as his mistress—then, presumably, he fled when Jessa was born. Jessa’s childhood friend Kelen has a worse story: his mother was raped by his Alben father, and he’s come to Albion after he was kicked out of Melei (or so the book implies). The Alben people are full of misconceptions about Melei, thanks to scholars like Jessa’s father, who write terrible lies about the Melei “savages” and how they must be “tamed”. Clearly, relations here have not gone well.
When Jessamin meets Finn, as Lord Ackerly is known, she quickly finds out that the Alben people are hiding a secret: those of the royal bloodlines have magic. Some, like Jessa’s excellent friend Eleanor, can use only a little magic, but others, like Finn and our villain Lord Downpike, can do tremendous things with their magic. Finn quickly becomes enchanted with Jessa because he has inadvertently “shadowed” her—a process in which the two’s shadows combine and, with enough concentration, Finn can either hear or see what Jessa is hearing or seeing. (He promises he would never intrude on her privacy, though.) This shadowing can usually only occur when two people are very much in love, and Finn is convinced that Jessa is his soulmate.
If this seems like a lot of history and backstory to cram into a 300-page book, that’s because it is. White gives us all the worldbuilding and explanations through exposition, telling, not showing, almost everything. Although we hear much about Jessa’s love for Melei, we never get to visit and see it for ourselves. Finn’s parents were also shadowed, which is Finn’s motivation for wanting to be shadowed so badly, but they’re dead before the start of the story and we don’t hear much about them until far into the book. Albion is at odds with the Iverian continental countries, which are just places we don’t know anything about; Lord Downpike wants access to Hallin magic in order to invade said countries, but we don’t really know the differences between Hallin magic and Finn and Downpike’s Cromberg magic. Nor do we know why Hallin magic would matter—we’re just told it’s “powerful”. The start of the book lays out its themes brilliantly, but everything else in the book is touched on in only the most superficial of ways.
Finn especially is an example of where this book needed to go deeper into its themes. Finn, a handsome white boy, is just a little bit too perfect. He has great magical power, he mysteriously has access to Hallin magic, and all the girls love him. More importantly, he is so perfect that he is above the themes that White has painstakingly based her book around. For example, when Finn tells Jessa that he really wants to be with her, he says this:
[Finn’s] admission that he wants me, a relationship with me, leaves me scrambling to sort out how to respond. I shouldn’t be so shocked, but Albens are never so open about how they feel. “I can’t—I don’t want—I never wanted my mother’s life. I don’t want to be an Alben’s dusky prize.”
He recoils as though I’ve struck him. “For all you think we judge you, I have never once cared about the color of your skin or the country of your birth. But it would appear you cannot get past mine.”
Perhaps this was meant to be romantic, but it instead invalidates Jessa’s very real concerns about the veracity of Finn’s behavior and ignores the very real actions of Finn’s people. Jessa has absolutely no reason to believe that he really meant what he was saying, in the context of the book or otherwise. At this point we’ve been given two prominent examples of Alben men who have had relations with Melenese women, only to later leave them: Kelen and his mother, and obviously Jessa and her mother. Jessa herself has monologued at length about Alben men who only come to her island to find mistresses whom they will eventually abandon. Instead of acknowledging her concerns, Finn’s basically saying, “Not all men!”
And the narrative doesn’t dispute Finn’s infallibility: Jessa even goes on to apologize to him for her actions, and Finn is again put above the themes of the book. When Finn says that men are “silly, prideful things” and acknowledges that Albion has done terrible things to Melei, Jessa tells him “not all men [are what he’s said]” and absolves him of any guilt in the matter. Jessa apologizes to him and it puts the onus of blame on her, not on him. She is in the wrong. Finn is a perfect white boy who doesn’t see race.
Finally, we learn that Kelen, not Lord Downpike, is the real villain. The man who raped Kelen’s mother was Downpike, and thus Kelen has magic, courtesy of being the son of an Alben aristocrat. In a series of events before the book starts, Kelen finds his way into Downpike’s employ and waits until Downpike needs an alibi for his nefarious schemes. Downpike casts a spell on Kelen to turn Kelen into his mirror image, and Kelen goes and gets himself arrested for the night so that Downpike can go commit crimes with no one the wiser. When the two of them are back at Downpike’s mansion, Kelen kills Downpike and, spell still on him, takes Downpike’s place. After Kelen’s monologue has wound down, we eventually find out that Kelen is power-hungry and would destroy anything, even Melei, if it meant that he would have power. But because Jessa is our protagonist and Kelen is a character who gets very few scenes, this is again a part where the book suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. We never have enough insight into Kelen’s character to understand his motivations. Why is he bitter enough towards Melei that he would want it destroyed? Whatever reasoning he has, we can’t really empathize with it. Kelen could have been Jessamin’s foil, another biracial character who went down a different path, but instead he comes off as an oddly one-dimensional villain.
How much more interesting would it have been if Jessamin, not Kelen, had inherited magic from an Alben father? Jessa is all I could ever ask for in a protagonist—she’s clever, resourceful, rash, stubborn, determined, and so much more than Strong Female Character—and because Illusions of Fate is written in first person, we get front row seats to her thought process and her inner conflicts. We know that Jessa’s mother always wanted Jessa to be Alben—she made her speak only Alben at home and deprived her of the culture that she really wanted to know, the Melenese one. Jessa’s mother clearly thought the Alben culture superior to her own, and although she communicates with Jessa only through letters, it’s clear that she hopes Jessa’s father will someday come back and call on her.
And, more importantly, we know that Jessa has always hated her Alben heritage, but hasn’t been above using it to get further in life—when her Alben university wouldn’t accept her despite her qualifications, she blackmails her father into making the school admit her—and now, with magic, White can get into some truly tricky questions. Would Jessa continue to embrace her Alben side because it offers her more privilege and more opportunities than does her Melenese side? Would her Melenese friends and family reject or confront her for acting too much like a
white Alben person? How could she use her newfound privilege to help the Melenese community in Albion? How would she balance her Alben and Melenese heritage as a biracial child, or would she even want to? This would all have been a logical progression of the themes that White introduces so well in the beginning of Illusions of Fate.
But instead, although Jessa is a great protagonist, she only becomes relevant to the plot because Finn is in love with her, and Downpike and Kelen only go after her because they want to get to Finn and his magic. Jessa has no magic, but she can think cleverly and quickly enough to defeat the villain without the help of Finn. That’s excellent and enormously laudable, and we rarely get to see a female protagonist of color take center stage like Jessa does. However, White introduces Jessa to us as a person confined by the privilege she lacks as a person of color, as a woman, and as a person with no magic, and she doesn’t follow through by showing us more of this conflict. Yes, the idea of magic as a signifier for privilege is a fantastic idea, but White never expands on it enough for it to be more than an idea. That’s a damn shame.