The Prestige by Christopher Priest


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
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. An excellent film version by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento) starring Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, was released in late 2006.

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.

The Prestige (*****) is published by Gollancz in the UK and by Tor in the USA.
Thanks for the review, Werthead. I saw the movie, and of course I knew there had to be more to the book (there always is), but I had no idea how much more. This makes me think I ought to read the book, and learn the rest of the story.
i read the book last xmas, after the film. it's a little harder to get into but i loved the ending and the darkness that ran through the whole thing. tho the men seemed far more petty in the book than the film. film had a vlaid reason for one wanting revenge, but the book reason was a lot less (from what i remember)
The film had a rather magical moment for one multiple Hugo-award winner.

As well as being a distinguished writer, Chris Priest also acts as an agent for a few people; among them, 20-odd Hugo winner Dave Langford. In the film, the rivalry between the two stage magicians arises when one of them insists on using the dangerous 'Langford knot', with fatal consequences.

The 'Langford knot' is unknown to escapologists and magicians alike, while Chris certainly did not include it in his novel...

Spooky! :eek:
I read it a year or so before the film came out. The journal style the story was written threw me for a loop and took a while to get used to, but in the end it was definitely worth it. I think what I liked most about the book was the development of the main characters as they competed against each other over years becoming more vicious as it went on.

I enjoyed the movie quite a bit too. Jackman, Bale, and Michael Caine... they had a great cast to work with on that film.
Well, I've now read the book. I liked the movie better, although very likely because I saw it first. I agree with faery_queen that the revenge plot seemed more authentic in the film. It was easier to understand why the feud went on so long when they had each done the other so much harm. Easier, too, to understand why Angier was willing to go to such amazing lengths to outshine Borden.

And then, knowing Borden's secret, all the hints in the journal seemed so knock-you-over-the-head obvious, it felt like he was belaboring the point. But of course my reaction is tainted by having seen the movie, so perhaps that's not a fair reaction. A story like this one with so many twists and turns is bound to suffer when the reader knows them in advance.

One thing I did like about the book was that I wasn't treated to the spectacle of so many squashed birds. That's a big point in its favor.
One thing I did like about the book was that I wasn't treated to the spectacle of so many squashed birds. That's a big point in its favor.

That's for sure a plus! I saw the film recently and liked it. The book is in my TBR pile. May be it's the time to crack it open.

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