Cover of Illusionarium, featuring the backs of two people in Edwardian garb looking at a foggy lawn

About the Book

Title: Illusionarium
Published: 2015
Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Cover Story: Slightly Steampunk
BFF Charm: Natalie Imbruglia
Talky Talk: Schoolboy Adventure
Bonus Factor: Worldbuilding
Anti-Bonus Factors: Awful Grownups, Body Horror
Relationship Status: Illusion’s Over

Cover Story: Slightly Steampunk

The models look more or less like Jonathan and Hannah. The costumes and the cogwheel designs convey the steampunk genre well enough, but the setting doesn’t look like any place in the book. Also, given the themes of deception and illusion (it’s right there in the title) I would have liked to see some masks.

The Deal:

Jonathan Gouden is the son and apprentice of the famous physician Dr. Heinrich Gouden, a man with a strong moral compass who has tried to raise his son the same way. But when a deadly disease breaks out and the king demands a cure, the most questionable method also appears the most likely to work. It’s a drug called fantillium that creates shared illusions, allowing scientists to simulate the effects of medication in sped-up time. It also comes with seriously creepy side effects. Jonathan is willing to do whatever it takes to save lives, but “whatever it takes” will be a lot more than he bargained for. 

BFF Charm: Natalie Imbruglia

BFF charm with Natalie Imbruglia's face.

Jonathan isn’t meant to be a hero at first. The way he dismisses his father’s belief in personal integrity makes it clear that he’ll have to learn that quality the hard way. He does, but it gets worse before it gets better. He’s got Nice Guy Syndrome: he’s a medical student and not good in a physical fight, so he can’t possibly be a bully, right? Even when he’s using fantillium to trap someone in ice? On the other hand, he’s doing all this because he’s desperate to find a cure, and his intelligence and snarky sense of humor sometimes made me like him despite myself. 

Swoonworthy Scale: 3

There’s not much romance in this book. Jonathan has a crush on a girl named Alice, but he hardly sees her. Two supporting characters fall in love, which Jonathan observes with comic dismay, but mostly everyone’s too busy staying alive.

Talky Talk: Schoolboy Adventure

Character voice is one of Heather Dixon’s strong points. Jonathan sounds exactly like you’d expect a nerdy, sarcastic, pseudo-Edwardian-era British-Dutch teenager to sound. I could have done without the footnotes, though. I was reading this as an e-book and they were all clustered at the end; besides, they didn’t say anything I couldn’t already guess.

Bonus Factor: Worldbuilding

Most parallel-universe stories start out in, or at least include, our own universe, but here, Dixon gives us two fully realized, original alternate worlds: Fata Morgana, the aerial city in the Arctic Circle where Jonathan lives, and Nod’ol, a drug-fuelled dystopian hellscape he gets trapped in and needs to escape. When I wasn’t nauseated or scared, I was very impressed with all the creative details.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Awful Grownups

Boxtrolls characters

I can’t go into details – this book is so full of twists that almost everything’s a spoiler – but Jonathan gets betrayed by people he looked up to more than once.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Body Horror

The disease, called the “Venen”, turns the patient’s veins black and kills them within six days – and believe it or not, this is actually one of the less horrific things that can happen in this story.

Relationship Status: Illusion’s Over

It was a very vivid illusion, but I’m glad to breathe fresh air again. I need to stop reading right now, before the side effects creep in.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received no compensation for this review. Illusionarium is available now.

Literary Matchmaking

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird #1)

A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray also features a quest across parallel universes.

Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1) [Mandy C.’s Take]
Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Waistcoats & Weaponry (Finishing School #3)
Manners & Mutiny (Finishing School #4)

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger also features a steampunk setting.


Entwined, also by Dixon, features more of her lush and witty writing style.

Regina Peters works in the video game industry, but her favourite imaginary worlds are on paper. She lives in Montreal, Canada, with her family.