There aren't many books that I keep and re-read; ILLUSION is literally one of about ten books that I own and wouldn't just stick in the Little Free Library next time I move so I don't have to carry a heavy box. I first read it as a teenager, I think, and I'm glad I came back to it this month, because it holds a lot of feelings.
On a technical level, this book breaks a lot of the rules of contemporary fantasy. It's a fantasy novel with almost no magic in it. It's intensely, persistently femme, and yet not YA. The writing is dense, lurid, complicated--even impenetrable. Volsky loves semi-colons! But then, so do I. As a writer, it's valuable to remember that some of the 'rules' I follow are really, truly only suggestions. If I love purple prose, and Volsky loves purple prose, maybe it's okay to write some purple prose from time to time.
I re-read this book over the past couple of weeks for pandemic comfort purposes, and I've been recommending it to almost everyone I know. It honestly kills me that it isn't more well-known, because I think it deserves a place in the fantasy Hall of Fame alongside, like, THE NAME OF THE WIND and WHEEL OF TIME. It has everything: political corruption, wildly unjust social structures, revolution, violence and blood, and a main character with one of the most perfect redemption arcs I've ever read.
I actually want to talk about Eliste vo Derrivale a bit. At the beginning of the book, she's the kind of spoiled teenager who slaps her servants and tells people to their face that she thinks their bloodline is inferior to hers. She's also the kind of person who thinks life should be fair and hates violence--and is willing to risk getting whipped and/or confined by her father to intercede for the boyfriend of the same servant she slapped. She's complicated. She's ignorant. Volsky absolutely does not flinch away from describing the corrupting effect of wealth and power and privilege, describing in agonizing detail just how prejudiced and cruel Eliste can be.
And then Eliste gets put through the wringer. She learns the truth about the social spheres of the rich and powerful, including finding herself in a position of powerlessness (because she's inferior by magic, money, age, gender, social rank) like the position she's put other people in. She finds herself coerced and assaulted by a man she looked up to, who is respected in her community. She learns about revolutionary ideas. She reads banned books, and discusses them with people.
Things get worse, of course. She has intimately personal encounters with the hardships she and her class have visited on their serfs. She starves, she shivers, she gets lice and gets bitten by bedbugs, she gets grabbed and pushed around and chased and dumped in ice water in the winter. She watches the people closest to her be killed. She nearly dies of exposure and then gets sent to jail for vagrancy! And the whole time, she wrestles with her prejudice. She realizes how wrong she was, that she's not better than the people she thought were beneath her.
And she changes. Her change is realistic: she's still the same person, she's still prissy and judgmental. But her beliefs and values shift. And because of that, she is able to go from spoiled and useless to genuinely heroic. She protects the secrets of the Revolution under torture! She's still complicated: the Revolution is messy and flawed, and she has vocal doubts about it. Her loyalties are more to people than to ideas. She still believes in propriety and presenting the right face to the world.
On twitter this week there was a thing going around asking, "White leftists, what radicalized you?"
For me, the easy answer is that I'm queer, so. The more complex, but still easy answer is that I'm just neuro-atypical enough to not be susceptible to crowd hysteria, so I was the odd one out at the Pentecostal church I was raised in, so I had to build my own worldview.
The more truthful answer might be that I read this book at an impressionable age and learned that it was possible to be redeemed from a life of privilege. I wanted to be a hero, and I figured if Eliste vo Derrivale could become a revolutionary I could too. And here we are.