It seems entirely logical that Christopher Priest's latest novel should centre on stage magic and magicians. The particular brand of misdirection that lies at the heart of theatrical conjuring is also a favourite Priest literary ploy – the art of not so much fooling the audience as encouraging them to fool themselves. When the magician visibly strains to heft a large jug of water, or "accidentally" knocks a metal hoop against some object to produce a satisfying clang, it is the unprepared watcher who supplies the untruth that the jug is genuinely full, the hoop both massive and solid. Just so, all Priest's fictions since the early 1980s contain some measure of unreliability, as when we are shocked to find that the narrator of The Affirmation (1981) has not been telling the truth to us, or to his own diary, or to himself. We trust narrators too easily.
The heart of The Prestige consists of two autobiographical accounts, of the rival Victorian magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. Borden's story is a private memoir eventually published as "The Famous Oath-Protected Book of Secrets", but here – it emerges – is presented in its unedited form; there is an oddity about the use of the word "I" which duly rouses one's suspicion. Following this, reading Angier's diary of events over the same span of years leads to a number of jolting figure/ground reversals. Each conjurer is, of course, the villain of the other's narrative, but there are many subtler discrepancies and reinterpretations.
Early in the Borden memoir we are told the real-world inspiration for the book (so identified by Priest himself when interviewed in Britain's Critical Wave newsletter, #43, 1995). The Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo – not to be confused with his US imitator "Chung Ling Soo" – allowed the whole of his later life, off-stage as well as on, to be shaped by the vital piece of misdirection which made his trademark trick work. Just so, Borden's life revolves around the secret of "The New Transported Man", an illusion in which he is apparently teleported across the stage. The nature of the gimmick gradually emerges, and is not trite in quite the expected way of magical secrets.
Obsessive secrecy and obsessive jealousy of others' illusions were the key traits of magicians that emerged from Priest's research into magic of both the modern and the gaslight eras. Angier, baffled by his rival's method, goes to bizarre lengths to duplicate and outdo "The New Transported Man". Eventually, following what is intended (by Borden) to be a false trail that will merely waste his time, he travels from Britain to a certain laboratory on Pike's Peak, Colorado, to seek advice from electrical savant Nikola Tesla. And Tesla builds him a fantastic apparatus – strictly science-fictional – which puts Borden's gimmick into the shade by making possible the "illusion" to which Angier gives the name "In A Flash".
(The Tesla machine does not really stand up to scrutiny of the implied mass/energy physics, but scientific literalism is not Priest's aim.)
What follows becomes steadily more eerie, without loss of compulsive narrative pull. The Prestige is haunted throughout by doubles and echoes. (They do it with mirrors.) Angier is – in a sense – Borden's spiritual twin, and the use of his "In A Flash" equipment burdens him with a life-distorting secret which parallels his rival's. Meanwhile, it is now Borden's turn for agonizing speculations about the key to a trick. Their mutual jealousy is delicately echoed by Tesla's obsessive jealousy of Edison, who enjoyed far greater fame despite backing a DC power transmission system inferior to Tesla's multiphase AC inspiration. A woman moves between the two magicians as glamorous assistant, lover and spy ... double roles, double agent, double-cross. The modern-day framing narrative features one of Angier's female descendants, whose counterpart is Borden's great-grandson – a man troubled all his life with the sense that somewhere he has an identical twin. (We ultimately learn why this should be so.) Both Angier and Borden die, and yet do not die, and end their tales with the same resonant words.
The final section is strange indeed, more Gothic than sf in flavour, heavy with metaphorical power. There are revelations, and more is implied about the peculiar nature of the Angier/Tesla effect's payoff or "prestige" – a term used in this sense by both magicians. The trick is done; before and after, Priest has rolled up both sleeves; his hands are empty and he fixes you with an honest look. And yet ... you realize that it is necessary to read The Prestige again.
It's an extraordinary performance, his best book in years, perhaps his best ever. Highly recommended.