Brian Moore sure has a gift for packing maximum depth into a very trim number of pages. In "The Magician's Wife," Moore (whose books include "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" and the historical novel "Black Robe") paints a political backdrop in watercolor and then sets to work enriching it with detail, using it as a context for exploring and breaking down larger themes. Moore thinks like a historian, but he's able to feel like a novelist, and that's what makes his work so engaging. "The Magician's Wife" is set in mid-19th century France, just as Napoleon III was hoping to sink his claws into North Africa, and although one of Moore's aims is to underscore the treachery of imperialism, he's even more interested in the effects the larger political arena has on his characters: He digs right into their motives, their crises of conscience, their tussles with their own fears and desires.
Sometimes "The Magician's Wife" even reads like a somewhat level-headed historical romance, a sure sign that as much as Moore wants to make us think, he also wants to give us some visceral, sensory pleasures. Perceptive, straightforward (and beautiful) Emmeline is the wife of the distracted, self-absorbed Henri, a magician who craves the attention and respect of nobility and royalty. He's delighted when he and Emmeline are invited to the court of Napoleon III for a week in the country to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. Emmeline, nervous about fitting in with high society, begs Henri to refuse the invitation, but he insists. It turns out that Henri and Emmeline fit very specifically into a plan hatched by the dashing (but calculating) Colonel Deniau that will strengthen France's foothold in Algeria, a country the emperor seeks to dominate.
As a prose stylist, Moore stacks his details beautifully. He takes his time setting up simple scenes, as when Emmeline, having traveled to Algeria with Henri, goes out riding: "The road ahead was empty, but minutes later she heard behind her the clanking of bells and, turning, saw three Tuareg riders, their faces half-masked in the fashion of their tribe, advancing on her, whipping their giant racing camels as they came up on her and passed her, the iron harness bells worn by the great beasts clanking at every step, their riders high on Tuareg saddles adorned with woolen tassels, the long camel necks swaying as, with undulating strides, they vanished in a cloud of dust." It's imagery like that that makes Moore's book seem expansive, even though its epic themes are rendered as slender and as elegant as a lady's compact.