My last encounter with the work of Kiersten White (Mind Games, a book I found to be terrible on basically every level) was not a positive one, and while Illusions of Fate was a far more positive reading experience, the novel fell into many of the same pitfalls I experienced the first time around with the author. White admitted that she wrote Mind Games in 9 days, and from the evidence provided, I can only assume she had a similar deadline with Illusions of Fate.
Described as ‘Cassandra Clare meets Downton Abbey’, the novel wears its influences on its sleeve yet still provides many enjoyable moments, primarily from the character interactions. It’s clear that White relishes writing fluffy witty dialogue, particularly of the flirtatious type. The first third of this short novel is a zippy read, one that hits the ground running and keeps up a quick pace throughout. Much of the novel’s real potential is in the first 90 pages or so, with big ideas hinted at along with a reasonable deft take on the historically fraught topic of colonialism.
Jessamine, the novel’s heroine, is an immigrant in Albion (a somewhat clunky but excusable stand-in for Victorian London) from a land recently colonised and stripped of its history, teachings and autonomy. As a student who must work as a maid to fund her studies, where she is treated as a nuisance or novelty and suffers from daily micro-aggressions, her defensiveness and anger towards her situation is not only understandable, it’s completely justified. One scene involving Jessamine and the token romantic love interest lord with a dark past stands out for its protagonist’s burst of cathartic rage, as Jessamine explains to Finn how privilege works and how he’ll never understand her life. It’s a moment of stark truth but sadly it’s as brave as the novel gets.
White, be it through naivety or a desire to end the standalone novel in a satisfying manner for its teen reader-base, makes huge jumps back with this theme by having Jessamine offer a weak compromise that equates a dominant white race’s colonial invasion, stripping of resources and systematic racism of a non-white people with said non-white people being occasionally judgemental of their oppressors. It’s a disappointing leap backwards and one that’s pretty insulting given the historical context the novel is clearly drawing influence from. Add to that a ‘twist’ ending that reinforces this false equivalence (although this felt more like lazy story-telling than any kind of political agenda) and the entire novel is dragged down a few steps.
That faulty ending feels rushed, and that’s the ultimate problem with this novel. The muddled magical system in place in this world is explained through exposition and seldom demonstrated, another waste of potential given the complex themes of privilege and class hinted at throughout those info-dumps. The ensemble beyond the three central characters are sketchily portrayed, playing the parts of plot devices more than fleshed out individuals. The villain’s final moment follows the Bond Baddie route of explaining every detail of his big bad master-plan before the inevitable happens. For a stand-alone novel, there’s very little fleshed out of this world and barely enough story to keep momentum going for the scant 288 pages.
It’s disappointing to see a novel that displayed as much potential as Illusions of Fate stumble over so many hurdles towards its fizzling ending. The book reaches out to readers yet repeatedly pulls back, offering moments of wit and spark amidst a rushed and underdeveloped concept that seems so unsure of itself. While it’s a quick read and never a slog, it sits comfortably in that middling spot, never quite striving for more.