Judith Janeway,
The Magician's Daughter
(Poisoned Pen Press, 2015)

"Reality is an illusion. Illusion is reality, and nothing is what it seems." This is the opening statement in magician Valentine Hill's street magician act. It's a statement that could also serve as a definition of Valentine Hill herself, who is a real person but one without an identity. Valentine's mother, a consummate grifter, has never revealed Valentine's birthdate, birthplace or her father's identity. In fact, the only facet of his identity she will reveal is that Valentine's father was himself a magician. Tracking down her mother while emulating her father is the life work of this spunky performer. It's a great hook: a magician has to work at clearing up the mysteries of her own existence.

In search of an assistant (actually an itinerant boyfriend) who made off with her cash stash, Valentine finds herself in San Francisco, somehow crossing paths with her swindler mother, who's busy conning one of the city's super rich. Discovery of this scheme throws Valentine into murder and other forms of chaos. Led to an address by a young woman named Ashely, who claimed that Valentine looked just like her father's girlfriend, Valentine is attacked and beaten unconscious. When she awakens, she is lying next to a dead man. Her mother has fled. It seems that she was assisting the FBI, though it's not clear how. The agent who tries to help Valentine is murdered right after it becomes clear that her mother's scheme and an international drug trafficking ring are somehow intertwined.

From there events spiral out of control as Valentine stays one step ahead of the bad guys and the good guys as she tries to stay out of trouble. She has about as many pluses in her column as she does minuses: she's a savant with numbers and a decent illusionist, which comes in handy while trying to track down a con artist embedded with a drug dealer. She is a highly moral person who lives by a strict code of personal rules, and breaking them in order to survive doesn't come easily. On the other hand, she's neurotic, with a huge inseam of anger that causes big ugly mood swings and weighs her down with a ton of phobias. It's a miracle Valentine can function, let alone survive in the tumultuous plot.

And tumultuous it is: the story speeds along at a good, fast-paced hum, once it gets going. Unfortunately, character exposition takes up the first half of the story, with a lot of supporting characters coming and going rather quickly. The pain of her rather brutal past gives Valentine depth in a story that has more velocity than coherence, filled as it is with confusing plot changes. There is hardly any actual performance magic at all in a story about a magician, which is disappointing, and the twist in the plot is broadcast from a rather early point in the road.

The Magician's Daughter is still a pretty good read that keeps you guessing as to who the bad guys and the good guys really are, and Valentine is a likable character with a lot of spunk. A decent introduction to what appears to be a promising series.

book review by
Mary Harvey

13 February 2016

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