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12-14-05: Christopher Priest's 'The Prestige'

Back From Tor As If By Magic

The UK Hardcover original first edition.
Oh my. Back in 1995, when I first bought a UK hardcover edition of Christopher Priest's 'The Prestige', I wasn't yet in the habit of buying two copies of every book, one to read and one to keep. Now, my first edition looks unread. I'm good with my books. But still, I'd be hard pressed to sell it, even for the $1200 that gets you one via Bookfinder. Yikes! Even the US hardcover first editions from St. Martin's are going for over $200 a pop.

The fat that St. Martin's Press issued the first hardcover edition over here in the good old US of A should be your cue to guess that Tor is taking no time in re-issuing the trade paperback of 'The Prestige' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; December 14, 2005 ; $14.95). Unless you're really, really rich, I'd wait until long after the movie has come and gone to seek out a first edition. Did I mention the movie? I guess I did.

Or more precisely, Tor did, along with just about everybody else in the entertainment industry. In fact, on the first page of their publicity materials accompanying the re-issue, there's not mention of the book itself. There's a picture of the reissue, but that's it. Otherwise, they trumpet the stars that were signed on before the re-release; director Chris (Memento) Nolan, actors Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine. In the interim, we've heard that David Bowie has been pegged to play Nikolai Tesla and Scarlett Johanssen to play a comely magician's assistant. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are writing the screenplay. As adaptations go, it seems to have a good start.

Front above and back below of the new Tor edition. Classy.
But if you wanted to read about movies, youd be better off going somewhere else, and frankly, movies simply cannot capture the joys of reading especially a work so finely written as Priest's 'The Prestige'. Like 'Carter Beats the Devil' by Glen David Gold and 'The Girl in the Glass' by Jeffrey Ford, 'The Prestige' is about the collision between illusion and reality, artifice and artifact. You've no doubt heard enough plot summaries to choke a horse, so I'll leave those behind. What I want to talk about in this novel is the wonderful level of detail and intricacy that Priest brings to his work.

Priest was a science fiction writer for many years before he wrote 'The Prestige' and he brings the world-building feel of science fiction to his historical fiction. But like many science fiction writers, he understands that it really helps to start his work in the present to take readers on the journey from the world they know into the world he will create. By doing so, he manages to increase the tension, because he's telling two stories in parallel, and as readers our drive to finish the narrative is doubled.

But Priest is also a consummate prose stylist. He writes both portions of the narrative in the first person, and there's a real joy to be found in the stylistic differences between the two speakers. Priest does a masterful job at creating stories within stories, narratives within narratives, at turning his novel into a prose version of the illusions he describes. It won a World Fantasy Award and Britain's James Tait Black Memorial Prize, back in the day.

'The Prestige' also brought Priest back out into the limelight. Since the publication of 'The Prestige', Priest has authored two novels. 'The Extremes' is a twisty science fiction novel about virtual reality, while 'The Separation' is a subtle, dense exploration of twins, doppelgangers and alternate timelines. It was first published as a trade paperback in the UK by Simon & Schuster. Victor Gollancz, ever in the forefront, published it first as a hardcover after the trade paperback original, which was barely printed and barely distributed. The S&S originals are now selling for somewhere in the range of $100 a pop. And I'm happy to report that by the time 'The Separation' came out, I was in full-blown double-book buying mode.

Interestingly enough, even though Tor itself published a trade paperback edition of 'The Prestige' back in 1997, this edition claims that, "this breathtaking, sophisticated entertainment appears in paperback at last." Hmm. Someone needs to run a quick check on Bookfinder before they write cover copy, eh? Oh well. At least the cover design is rather nice, though it's not a patch on the UK HC original. And expect to see more versions if the movie itself moves from fiction into fact. Now that's a magic trick that's a lot harder to accomplish. And for those who read the novel, a truly superfluous trick at that.