Title: Magic Mansion
Author: Jordan Castillo Price
Publisher: JCP Books
Length: Novel

Buy Link: Amazon

Rating: 4.25

John Topaz (aka Professor Topaz) has spent many years as a successful and respected magician. However, he is now in his 60s and his career is slowing down. Despite his agent’s encouragement, John has no desire to do the cruise ship circuit or write a memoir. He still wants to reach people with his magic but opportunities are more and more limited. Ricardo Hart (Ricardo the Magnificent) is facing similar problems. Although earlier in his career in his mid-thirties, Ricardo’s regular performance venue has closed down and he is struggling for jobs other than bachelorette parties and the dreaded child’s birthday party.

When each man hears about a reality show called Magic Mansion, he decides to take a chance and apply. The show offers an opportunity for the winner to gain fans and public awareness, giving their careers a much needed boost. The men meet for the first time at the auditions and are drawn to each other immediately, so much so that they have a brief encounter afterwards. John recognizes that Ricardo is one of the few people who share his gift for True magic, not just the typical magician’s tricks and illusions. And Ricardo has always admired (and been attracted to) John and is thrilled to not only meet his idol, but find out that Johns shares an attraction. They each are hopeful that the other will make the show and they will have more time to spend together.  John, as the more well-known magician, is readily accepted into the show, especially as he is older and helps round out the cast demographics. Ricardo has a bit more difficulty, but ultimately each man ends up as one of twelve contestants on the reality show.

John and Ricardo are excited to see one another and, along with their teams, the men face challenges and risk eliminations on their way to the grand prize. Although John was never expected to actually win (and was told as much by the producers), his skills and excellent physical shape help propel him along. And Ricardo is equally sucessful, especially as he gains fans attracted to his gorgeous appearance and smooth skills. But the competition is tough and one contestant in particular bears them ill will. The men also struggle with the constant camera scrutiny, trying to hide their feelings for one another in the midst of the competition and finding it harder and harder the more time they spend together. As they get closer to their goals, who will win Magic Mansion?

I will admit to being a fan of competitive reality shows and so when I heard about Magic Mansion I was instantly intrigued. And I was not disappointed, as this story does a fabulous job with the reality show elements, offering a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the production. It soon becomes clear how much manipulation is involved in the “reality” as the producers work to craft interesting storylines and conflicts. Anything can be conveyed with the right soundbites and camera editing, and the producers often encourage the contestants to act in ways that best match with their desired story. We also see how much set up is involved in each challenge, the hours of downtime and boredom the contestants face while they wait for the short bursts of activity, and the difficulty of living with constant cameras and microphones recording every move. I found this part of the story just fascinating, and the author makes you feel like you are right inside all the action. Even with so many characters, Price does a great job making them distinct enough that it is easy to follow the cast and get to know them as the show goes on.

One of the most interesting aspects of Magic Mansion is that it was originally written as a serial on the author’s website and at critical points in the story, readers were invited to vote on which contestants would be eliminated from the show, determining the course of the book. Although reading it now as a completed novel doesn’t offer that same immediacy, it still adds excitement and tension to the story knowing that as the viewing audience “votes” out a contestants, real readers were doing the same thing. This is such a clever device and one that had to be increbily challenging to write. At the end of the book the author even lists the results of each vote, letting us see who readers chose and how many votes the contestants received at each stop along the way. (If you are interested in more about this, I read a great interview with the author at Romance Around the Corner where the author talks about this in more detail.)

In addition to the reality show concept, Magic Mansion also gives us an inside look into the world of magic.  We get to see the magicians performing many traditional tricks and get the details on how the illusions are created.  The book reveals secrets behind the famous “zig zag box” which makes it appear the magician has cut the assistant in half, and drops details about escaping a straight jacket, how to use linking rings, and other tricks.  I found this all fascinating, and love how it enhanced the book.

A big theme of the story is being true to yourself and the reality show element really highlights that. The producers work hard to craft a story and everything from who is cast, to the types of challenges, to the way the various contestants are portrayed is done with that story in mind. John is brought in as the older man with a more established and well-known career. Although he is out, his personal history is not well known, and few viewers are aware he had a long-time partnership with a man who recently died. Ricardo’s sexuality is also not known, and the producers take advantage of his good looks and close friendship with a young female contestant to play up a supposed romance between them. John and Ricardo struggle, knowing that showing their feelings for one another on camera is risky, but at the same time feeling it is important to be true to who they really are. This theme carries throughout the book as other contestants face similar challenges. And we soon see that they most disliked contestant is the one who is completely artificial, manufacturing a persona and constantly posturing, never exposing his real self.

Although I feel like we really get to know John and Ricardo individually over the course of the book, I did feel the connection between them was a little lacking. The men have so little time alone together, or even where they can talk openly due to the constant cameras, that it is hard to see how they are building their relationship. It is clear that Ricardo is awestruck and attracted to John, but I had trouble seeing where that turns into feelings for the real person. I wish this part had been developed more so that the eventual HEA felt more earned and realistic. The book also a bit long and could maybe have been tighter through the middle, although this is likely a result of the serial format of the original publication.

But despite those issues, I just could not put Magic Mansion down. I found myself completely drawn into the show, the characters, and the “behind-the-scenes” feeling I got from the story. It was totally engaging and a lot of fun to read. I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a reality show or a magic fan.