The Prestige tells the tale of a feud between two 19th Century stage magicians, and the secrets they jealously guard that end up dominating their lives. Each magician has an ingenious secret method of performing an illusion - one of these is explained away by normal means, the other is revealed to be pure science fiction. The novel is told predominantly through the selected diary entries of the two main protagonists - plus a very spooky framing sequence concerning the magicians modern day relatives - and while this does mean there is some repetition of material Priest skilfully shows how the same situation is seen differently by the two central characters, with even the reasons behind what sets off the initial conflict unknown by the other.
In terms of rationality the science fiction element isn't always wholly convincing - particularly the scientist who creates a device which would not only revolutionise society but lead to great personal wealth (and indeed does lead to great wealth for the magician he creates it for) inexplicitly being written out of the tale with an unconvincing case of illogical bankruptcy - but it does lead to a magnificently eerie climax as the revelations behind the 'prestiges' are finally revealed.
The Prestige contains some haunting images, and Priest creates two incredibly vivid lead characters while expertly examining the dangerous nature of secrets and obsession. A unique mixture of science fiction and mystery, this is a beguiling and highly original novel.
The Prestige is the ninth novel by the British SF author Christopher Priest. It was first published in 1995 and won the World Fantasy Award for that year. It is Priest's best-known novel and apparently his most successful. It is currently being made into a film by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento) starring Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, due for release in late 2006/early 2007.
The Prestige is the story of two feuding magicians from the late 19th Century, the aristocratic Rupert Angier and his working-class nemesis, Alfred Borden, and how that feud affects later generations of their families, personified in the mid-1990s by Borden's descendent Andrew Westley and Kate Angier. A strange mystery has haunted Andrew's life and his search for the answer leads him to Kate and the story of the feud.
From there the novel takes us back some 130 years and relates, in two separate sections, the life stories of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. Borden's story is told as a somewhat (deliberately) confused narrative, supposedly a commentary on a book on stage magic, but Borden's need to tell his story takes over and he goes into detail about his life and the feud with Angier. We learn that Borden develops an incredible magic trick which no-one can fathom, a trick which is then improved upon by Angier, to Borden's fury. The narrative then switches to Angier's more formal diary. Angier's story forms the bulk of the novel and takes us through his youth and his slow beginnings at the art of magic until his fateful meeting with Borden and the consequences of that meeting.
Priest tells his story by shifting between four first-person narratives (Andrew and Kate in the present, Rupert and Alfred in the past), altering his prose style between the two periods with apparent ease and painting these four central characters and the other characters described in their tales with depth and layers. As well as giving an insight into the world of stage magic he brings turn-of-the-century Britain to life with its slow, reluctant letting go of the old century and its embrace of the new, symbolised by the power of electricity. Electricity itself is nearly a character in the novel, the awe which Angier holds it in described with a nearly fetish-like quality and brought to life through the historical figure of Nikolai Tesla, who plays a minor but key role in the narrative.
The Prestige is a puzzle built upon twists, turns and conflicting mysteries. It's like an M Night Shymalan film but one where the twist you were confidently expecting is suddenly yanked out of sight and something unforseen being dropped in its place. Some may question whether if this is really an SF novel, so subtle are the ideas being explored here, but by the end of the book more overt SF elements have emerged and it is a tribute to Priest's writing that he keeps things firmly grounded in reality. The ending, when it comes, may strike some as abrupt, but on another level it is the perfect, ambiguous ending to a nearly perfectly-tuned mystery. The Prestige is one of the most finely-written, 'different' SF novels I've ever read, and firmly recommended to all.
on 2 March 2007
I wasn't expecting this to start in the present day, so that was a surprise. At first I thought I might be a little disappointed at not getting straight into the thick of the magic aspect (which I knew was set in the 19th Century), but it's written in such a way that I was hooked from the start. It then quickly switched to the past in the second part, going from being narrated by Andrew Westley, to the personal memoirs of Alfred Borden himself.
It was all rather tantalising. Every time Borden seemed on the verge of making a revelation, he drew back, focusing on the back story and just touching on the beginnings of the feud between Borden and Angier...
The further I read, the better it got! The world of stage magic and illusion is fascinating at the best of times, but this was chock-full of mystery on top of that. I loved how the author kept coming back to the fact that the story was being related through Borden's notebook, throughout which Borden left little notes to himself, and even used the standard tricks of the illusionist (stating the whole "nothing up my sleeve" gambit when making a revelation, in order to relate that he's not hiding anything in the retelling).
In part three, the narrative was continued by a third character - this time one of Rupert Angier's descendants - who was also trying to fill in the blanks where The Great Dante (Angier's stage name) was concerned and who is also intrigued by Borden's descendent and her contemporary.
A fourth part, a fourth voice - now Rupert Angier's side of the story was told from his own diaries, revealing the reasons behind the old enmity between him and Borden that caused them both harm and spanned generations of both the families.
The plot twisted and turned like a twisty-turny thing. Strangely, despite being given every clue, I didn't work it out, which is rather unusual for me (if I say so myself) - I usually cotton onto things, whether it's early on or right before the "big reveal". The finale switched back to modern-day and wrapped up beautifully. I have to say this was quite an extraordinary read and now that I'm finished with it, I'm even more desperate to see the film!
(A big thank you to Marcus J who recommended this book to me - I've now found a new author to collect!)
on 23 December 2013
When I watched The Prestige film, I thought it was brilliant - beautifully produced and very clever. It had me gripped from beginning to end, and I spent the next few days unpicking the clues to the denouement that I'd missed, and the ways in which the production itself echoed the story. I'm usually a book-before-film girl, but I only realised afterwards that this was based on a novel. I downloaded it and started reading immediately.
It's hard to say too much about the story of The Prestige without giving away the plot. Essentially, this is the story of two stage magicians (Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier) in Victorian London, who fall out and become life-long enemies. They find ever more imaginative ways to sabotage each other's shows and they become obsessed with learning one another's secrets. This feud escalates over the years, hurting those around them whilst simultaneously spurring them both on in pursuit of the ultimate illusion.
To be honest, that's where the similarities between film and book finish. It became clear to me very quickly that Christopher Nolan's film, good as it is, is not particularly faithful to Christopher Priest's novel, and I struggled to keep the two separate in my mind.
The most significant differences between the book and the film include: the way Borden and Angier first meet; the cause of their feud; their families and personal lives; the workings of Angier's version of the illusion at the heart of the novel; and the way both characters' stories end. The murder trial, for example, is a creation of Nolan's specifically for the film. I found it hard to keep track of what I'd read in earlier chapters and what I was remembering from the film.
This confusion was heightened by the epistolary structure of the novel and the nature of parts of the narrative. The middle two sections of the novel take the form of Borden's diary, followed by Angier's diary. Borden's diary is necessarily and deliberately bewildering, even for someone who (having seen the film) knows the secret behind it. It's hard to know at what point a reader would figure out that secret if they hadn't seen the film, but that prior knowledge didn't particularly lessen my enjoyment. What did become frustrating, though, was the fact that the two diaries (covering broadly the same time period) are printed consecutively rather than in parallel. Had I been reading this in paperback, I don't think this would have been an issue, but on a Kindle it's very difficult to flick back and forwards to match up dates and events, to compare the two different perspectives on the same incident and so on.
Framing these two diaries is a present-day narrative that is completely absent in Christopher Nolan's film. The Prestige, the novel, begins in the 1990s with Andrew Westley and Kate Angier - the descendents of the two magicians. In what is a rather long and drawn-out opening section, it is established that the mystery that's plagued Andrew since childhood seems in some way connected to the story of the magicians. Kate has pieced together what she can through reading old papers of Angier's, and presents Andrew with the two diaries so that he might draw his own conclusions. The narrative returns to the present day at the end of Angier's diary for the final few chapters, which reveal the true extent of the impact of the magicians' feud.
The present-day framing does add an interesting dimension, highlighting as it does the far-reaching repercussions of the feud on future generations. But I found the first few chapters very slow, and had I not been so fascinated by the film I'm not sure I would have stuck with it. There's a lot about Andrew's work, his parents and his girlfriend that is just padding, really, and didn't add anything to his character or the story that I could see. The end section is more satisfying, faster-moving and more dramatic - but ends rather abruptly. It all feels a little unresolved...but after my initial surprise that I'd reached the final page, I came round to thinking that that unresolved feeling is probably quite fitting for the novel as a whole.
In some respects, this is a story that lends itself more to the screen than the page: reading lengthy and necessarily vague descriptions of stage illusions packs much less of a punch than seeing those illusions on screen. But on the other hand, the book allows for much greater exploration of the psychology and motivations of these two complex and flawed characters, as well as a more vivid picture of turn-of-the-century London and stage magic in general. There is much more space to flesh out the characters and add layers of complexity to their relationships - to each other, to their families and to their craft.
The Prestige is not an easy read, and it's not a quick read: it took me almost two weeks to read, compared to an average of three or four days per book usually. It's also hard to categorise: I wouldn't have labelled the film science fiction, but I think the second half of the novel definitely moves into that genre. And I can't decide whether I'd recommend seeing the film first or reading the book first. What I will say is that The Prestige is worth a read, I think, as long as you're prepared for something quite different - darker, more confusing and harder work - from the film, but intriguing and surprising nonetheless.
on 22 August 2008
I watched the movie ("The Prestige" directed by Christopher Nolan) before reading the novel. They actually differ on several points, and I don't think watching the film spoiled the reading. The novel spans a longer time period and is framed by a story set in today's world (a meeting between descendants of Borden and Angier, the two rival magicians). The plot alternates between different times and persons, like a puzzle where the pieces are different perspectives on basically the same events. In this the novel is really effective: it made me sympathise with the different narrators, although two of them are enemies. Also, even though I had watched the movie the story kept me guessing about some things until the very end. The movie is very good, but I actually like the book a little bit more as I think it makes some things more 'believable'.
The Prestige is very well written and hard to put down, and I will definitely read more novels by Christopher Priest
on 10 March 2011
After watching the movie, which i really enjoyed i thought i might try the book. I initially had doubts i would enjoy it because my kind of books are more like Michael Crichton, action, sci-fi adventure kind of books. However i kept an open mind and began to read.
Unlike the movie the book begins in the present and the story is almost a journal or diary of both the protagonists life. The book follows a fragmented but engaging story of two magicians in a fierce battle to outdo each other and to find out one anothers secrets. The victorian English setting is eerie but not depressing and the whole story moves along at a decent pace, it never slows and i found myself reaching for the book every spare minute of the day. Christopher Priest gets his characterisation spot on and the science fiction 'ish' elements really don't seem out of place.
Overall a brilliant and outstanding book. The flair with which Priest writes is uncanny and his ability to draw the reader into his protagonists life is very clever. Though i most likley will not read his other works i can't praise The Prestige enough.
And if anybody is wondering i did actually enjoy the movie more than the book, it seemed to fit together better and the twist at the end was much better handled than in the book where it seemed to fizzle out slightly, that's the only reason i didn't award this book five stars. But hey, i'm not a literary expert, i think i'll go back to Crichton and adventure novels.
on 3 September 2001
The Prestige is both a tragedy, and an emotionally engaging and tragic chronicle of one man's discovery of his origins, self and substance. The bulk of the story is set around the turn of the 20th century, focusing on two magicians - Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier - who, due to youthful naivety, tragic coincidences, misunderstandings and mutual pride, begin a feud early on in their careers, which then continues for the rest of their lives. They become obsessed with each other, and the desire of each to outdo the other consumes them both.
The Prestige is one of the subtlest, most satisfying novels published in a very long time. Priest has written with supreme skill and restraint, creating a backdrop which remains exactly that whilst enhancing the story line, and beautifully illustrating the social rituals of the period setting. We feel saddened to lose the characters in his story at the turn of the last page, and genuinely moved by the ultimate conclusion. Absolutely stunning.
on 30 January 2012
Christopher Nolan's film of The Prestige - a gas-lit tale of the increasingly sinister feud between two rival magicians - is one of my very favourite movies, so I thought it was about time I read the book that inspired it. I'm glad I did because the book is much more expansive: it actually begins in the present day and shows how the war between Borden and Angier has filtered through the subsequent generations and tainted the lives of their families to come. This frame gives the main story a completely different feel, and leads to a very different - and perhaps more sinister - finale than the one in the film. The novel has different strengths from the film too: some of the stage magic tricks are perhaps less compelling when described than when seen, and Borden's secret is inevitably harder to mask in text form than visually. But I think Angier gains a lot of depth in the book and aside from the magic and the increasingly fantastical trickery, the real strength in this novel lies in Priest's capturing of the fin de siecle blend of optimism and fear. The third major character in the book, after the two showmen, is electricity itself - embodied by Nikola Tesla - and Priest compellingly explores how this new power holds the capacity both to empower and to enslave, perhaps at the same time. All in all this is a gripping work of historical science-fiction, and even if you've seen the film there are few things that may surprise you here.
on 29 October 1999
'Prestige' is the technical term used in stage magic and refers to the effect of a conjurer's display, such as producing a rabbit from a hat, or turning water into wine. In this case, Christopher Priest's sleighty-writing talent has turned a dark tale of the obsessive rivalry between two late-Victorian stage-magicians into a masterpiece of art and illusion. The first character, Alfred Borden, tells how his youthful fascination with the card-trick, 'Find the Lady,' led him to develop an act named 'The New Transported Man' - he steps inside a cabinet on one side of the stage and closes the door. An instant later, he steps out of an identical cabinet on the opposite side of the stage, just as the first box collapses, Borden apparently having miraculously crossed the intervening distance. The audience knows it is a simple but clever trick and applaud, because they too will have been transported, as well as entertained and mystified. Borden's artistry relies on the solid craftsmanship of the cabinet-maker, as he knows that anything made of wood lends itself to "solid normality." However, the setting is at the turn of the century and amazing new scientific discoveries are begging to get in on the act. Borden's rival is Rupert Angier; he performs a similar trick, but much more quickly and mysteriously because he has employed the techno-talents of the eccentric electrical wizard, Nikola Tesla. Angier becomes famous too, dazzling his audience with special effects - the brighter the light, the greater the ensuing darkness and the sense of wonder. Thus Angier's new scientific act successfully replaced the familiar magical show, yet remained magical because it was presented by a skilled performance-artist. And as the often-quoted Arthur C Clarke said, "Any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." As the history unfolds in the form of supposedly-truthful diaries - both Borden and Angier deceive in print as well as on stage - we begin to wonder how many magicians it takes to turn a trick - are there perhaps twins,secret brothers, exact doubles, or could bi-location be the answer? Throughout the ages, religious mystics have reportedly appeared in two places at once, but unlike warring wizards, they do not set out to deceive, wishing to be known for truth and honesty. Women do feature in the story, but as with many of today's male quiz-show hosts, they provide a supporting role, except for one lady who has a dual identity. At one point, she promises to reveal the secrets of one magican to the other, for it is hard for true love to thrive in an atmosphere of distrust and deliberate deceit. Towards the end, with the reported demise of the heroes (or anti-heroes, Christopher Priest convinces us of the horror of duplicity, yet allows for our love of a genuine fake. To reveal more details of the plot would spoil the reader's enjoyment - there are few of us who remain enchanted by an illusion once we know how it is done. "The Prestige" is the genuine article, a tale for our times, with the shades of H G Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelly all invisibly hovering in the wings. Finally it's worth noting that the author has surreptitiously given two of his novels almost-similar titles, so he too should be labelled an arch-conjuror, alongside his fascinatingly-flawed invented characters. I refer to "The Glamour," published in 1984, whose theme is invisibility. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'glamour' as 'magic, enchantment, spell,' whilst 'prestige' is defined as 'illusion, conjuring-trick or deception.' In my view, both books are essential reading if you believe that what you see is always what you get.
on 5 March 1999
If you have never read a novel by Chris Priest then let me assure you that he is one of the finest writers of 'imaginative fiction' (and I use this term reluctantly because I dislike pigeon-holing authors)in Britain. 'The Prestige' is one of the greatest novels written by a British writer in the last 20 years. The book has won numerous awards (including the World Fantasy Award, I believe). The entire novel builds tension on tension, mystery on mystery, right until the powerful and unexpected ending. The characters are magnificent, especially the two central protaganists (who are feuding magicians living in the 1880's). The fued is then carried through the successive generations to the present, where the mystery deepens. It is both a griping mystery and a literate exploration into obsession and fuetile rivalry. It ends with a terrific sense of sorrow. It is a very difficult book to forget.