ARC Book Review: Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

Posted May 18, 2015 by Debby in Reviews / 8 Comments

I received this book for free from Publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

ARC Book Review: Illusionarium by Heather DixonIllusionarium by Heather Dixon
Published by Greenwillow Books on May 19th, 2015
Genres: Parallel Universes, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Young Adult
Pages: 368
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

What if the world holds more dangers—and more wonders—than we have ever known? And what if there is more than one world? From Heather Dixon, author of the acclaimed Entwined, comes a brilliantly conceived adventure that sweeps us from the inner workings of our souls to the far reaches of our imaginations.

Jonathan is perfectly ordinary. But then—as every good adventure begins—the king swoops into port, and Jonathan and his father are enlisted to find the cure to a deadly plague. Jonathan discovers that he's a prodigy at working with a new chemical called fantillium, which creates shared hallucinations—or illusions. And just like that, Jonathan is knocked off his path. Through richly developed parallel worlds, vivid action, a healthy dose of humor, and gorgeous writing, Heather Dixon spins a story that calls to mind The Night Circus and Pixar movies, but is wholly its own.

1.5 Stars

Having heard amazing things about Dixon’s debut, Entwined, that I have had on my shelf for years but shamefully not read yet, when the option to review Illusionarium came up, I jumped on that instantly. I’m generally a sucker for all things labeled steampunk anyway. But. Well, I think I may have learned my lesson not to jump the gun like that again.

From the very start, Illusionarium and I didn’t get along – to the point where I honestly should have just stopped reading. But my sense of obligation bade me to continue. The problem with Illusionarium lies mostly in the premise and the utterly failed world building. The story takes place in a steampunk England in the late 1800s, where a plague has just broken out. Jonathan’s father is a scientist hunting for the cure, and he is his apprentice. For *whatever* reason, the king believes that the cure can best be found by illusioning. And this illusion concept is where the novel crashed and burned for me.

Basically, by inhaling a chemical called “fantillium”, people can make illusions: imagine substances and magic so long as they understand the compounds that the illusions would be made of. Okay, sure. Sounds fine and vaguely alchemy-like. Apparently, if multiple people inhale the stuff they *share* the illusions and can all see the same thing. A bit iffy, but it’s fiction, I’ll accept this. But. Apparently you can also illusion doors to parallel universes and then disappear into them. Um. No. Illusions are not real. What happens in an illusion is not real. This bugged the crap out of me because the rest of the book tried to be ultra-scientific about the world building. No. Just no.


Instantly I was unamused by this flawed world building, and it didn’t help that I cared nothing for the main character. Jonathan has absolutely no personality and the book spends little to no time on characterization. It all feels extremely undeveloped and rushed. At the beginning, the book is moving so quickly from action scene to action scene but I didn’t connect to any characters and hardly felt the real tension of this plague they were fighting. Things were just happening. I was a passive observer. I had trouble keeping myself reading – seriously, plucking my eyebrows was more interesting.

Jonathan ends up in a parallel version of London, a city in crisis, where the antagonist tries to keep him because he can illusion. APPARENTLY that’s a rare gift that only speshul people have. (Why? How? Never explained.) In this parallel version, illusionists are the rulers of the world because… the orthoganagen (fuel) miners… like… watching them? Honestly, it made no sense. Especially when it becomes apparent that inhaling too much fantillium will cause your body to MUTATE and schism, resulting in multiple sets of eyes, noses, mouths, fingers. YEAH. GROSS. AND STILL THEY USE THIS STUFF LIKE DUMB ADDICTS UNTIL THEY ALL GO CRAZY. AND THE QUEEN CASTS OFF AND KILLS THE ONES THAT MUTATE TOO FAR AND THEN JUST GOES AND GETS MORE PEOPLE TO POPULATE HER CRAZY EMPIRE. EVEN THOUGH SHE SAYS SHE’S TRYING TO “SAVE” IT. WHAT. THE ACTUAL. FUCK.


This book is just bizarre. I tried to read as quickly as possible to just get it over with, but I had to stop at times because I was filled with such utter disbelief. My face hurts from being scrunched up so much. There wasn’t even a romance to lighten the mood (which I would say makes this cover QUITE misleading – he doesn’t even have a female sidekick, so wtf?), as Jonathan only has a passing crush on a girl back home. His awkwardly intense companion, Lockwood, manages however to fall in love with a girl in ONE DAY – to the extent of them being ready to give up their lives for each other and stuff. Uh… Yeah. No. That’s the weirdest, most passionless, most awkward instalove I’ve ever seen.

But I will give this book the tiniest amount of points back because, with the bodies schisming, it turned into a very uniquely creepy story that could easily be found within a Studio Ghibli film. If such a version of this story were made, I would probably enjoy it. At least a little. I don’t know.

Summing Up:

Illusionarium is a colossal disappointment. With cardboard characters, majorly flawed world building, a bizarre as fuck plot, and no romance to write home about, I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Now I’ll try to wipe this from my memory and eventually give Dixon another shot with Entwined. Maybe she should have just stuck to fairy tales.

GIF it to me straight!

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8 responses to “ARC Book Review: Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

  1. OMG what the hell? Just reading your review doesn’t make me want to even consider reading this lol I’m sorry you didn’t connect with this one, it sounds confusing as F! hahaha

  2. Oh gosh, this sounds horrible! What a bummer! I’ve taken it off my list because I haven’t heard one good review of it and you make it sound totally confusing. I can’t believe there isn’t a girl in the book if there is one on the cover!! Wtf.

    I loved Entwined and hope you give it a try someday; it truly sounds the complete opposite of Illusionarium and I though it was really charming.
    Morgan @ Gone with the Words recently posted Review: Run Away by Laura Salters + Giveaway!My Profile

  3. Joanna

    I like how you tell it like it is. I know now not to fall for its beautiful cover. I do wonder how Entwined compares. Like you, I’ve owned forever but have not read.

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