Review by David R:
The story opens with Sir Charles Ravenstreet being ousted from the board of a company he helped build. Looking for a new direction, he is introduced to Sir Edwin Karney, right-hand man of Lord Mervil, who is looking for investors in a new drug. This drug is a sort of “happy pill” which will relieve all ones worries.
On the way home, Ravenstreet sees a plane crash into a country pub. He goes to the rescue and finds three men, to whom he offers a place to stay. These are the magicians of the title. Who or what they are is never fully disclosed. Having convinced Ravenstreet that this new drug has sinister connotations, the three persuade him that he can turn his life around in a different way, and make him experience significant episodes in his past life, as though he was reliving them. This is called “Time Alive”.
Ravenstreet is then faced with certain choices, and is warned that the one which appears bleakest is in fact the best way forward.
Priestley wrote a number of plays with a “time” theme, and also introduced the concept into some of his novels. This is not so much a Wellsian Time Machine, as hypnotism, or dreaming; a pulling-back of the curtain between one world and another.
He was influenced by J W Dunne’s An Experiment with Time, and other works which demonstrated the possibility of what might be better termed “astral projection.” In this book, the magicians exert some influence, perhaps hypnotism, which enables Ravenstreet to look back in time whilst actually experiencing the reality of the events. It does not matter whether you believe this is possible; for the purposes of the story the concept is workable.
For me this is a happy story. There are some grim episodes, as well as comic interludes, but the “Time Alive” sequences are somehow written in a richer way, and I found myself experiencing that richness. For me, the mark of a good book is one that draws me into the plot and enables me to experience the events as though I too was one of the characters. This book does that.
Priestley’s one failing as an author (for me) is his characterisation. He writes as a playwright, and he was a very good playwright. In that respect, what you read is what you get. The characters are rather two dimensional; they fit into the story, and the story is nevertheless a good one, but you have to decide for yourself what their motives are.
There is a certain amount of prediction in this story. In a secondary theme, Priestley foresees that British Industry will turn away from the technicians and inventors who made such successful companies, and increasingly rely on the financial experts who eventually have no innovations to offer and are unable to resist foreign competition. The “Happy Pill” foretells the development of Valium and similar drugs which eventually are recognised as very harmful when used indiscriminately.