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Written By:

Georgia Smith

Feminine witchiness meets the dark core of war in Syd Moore’s newest novel The Grand Illusion – the first part of a trilogy focusing on the occultism of the Nazi regime and the shadowy, semi-mythological methods used by the British forces in the 1940s to stave off the impending German invasions. Based in semi-truth, edging itself around the borders of reality and fiction, Moore’s novel considers the sweeping surroundings of the mysterious ‘Operation Cone of Power’- the inclusion of non-military personnel with unusual skills into the armed forces in order to create a fresh defence against the underlying occultism and quasi-religious beliefs driving the Nazi forces.

Moore’s protagonist – Daphne Devine – is summoned from the glitzy world of London showbusiness along with her mentor Jonty to the shadowy underbelly of the British army; trading spooky blackout city streets to the echoing basement of Wormwood Scrubs and the sweeping grounds of Farnham Castle in order to help create the ultimate weapon against the occultism that is empowering the imminent Nazi invasion – the ‘Cone of Power’. Moore weaves a narrative that is at once fictional and not; the truths of those mysterious 1940s meetings crafted just richly enough to appear real, bolstered by facts and statistics and what has clearly been an extensive research task into the possibilities of British WWII operations. Daphne, as one of the only women and far from her showbiz life, struggles to find herself in this world of men; a running theme that Moore has, despite the historical setting of her novel, managed to chime jarringly with a modern female experience.

War is thudding in the background, a constant dull threat plaguing the work of this unlikely brigade working on their unlikely defences, and colours the whole novel with a foreboding sense of darkness and danger. Told through documents – war-room broadcasts, telegrams, calendars, and the journal-style of the main body of the novel – Moore has woven such a deep, sweeping landscape of the Second World War that the palpability of its shadow is imbibed through every word. Consistently considering the comparisons between world war and the personal war that Daphne is fighting against herself as a woman in this situation, and as someone who just wants to collect her scattered family and go home, The Grand Illusion makes a refreshing, innovative continual oscillation between the enormity of war, and the minutiae of the people committed to the machine of it.

Every element of The Grand Illusion is richly and devotedly crafted – Moore’s characters are deliciously three-dimensional with shadowy inner lives and hubris, her settings are detailed into a sense of solid reality, and her complex plot twists towards and away from readers almost naturally, leaving them in the same darkness about the truths of the occult and the operations of war as those who would’ve been actually involved in the 1940s. Daphne’s friendships feel real, the dialogue is terse and funny, and the large cast of characters oscillate around each other like a well-oiled machine, puppeteered in this strange life of friendships, animosities and the threat of war as the guests of the British Army. Romance is more than just a character development point for the female characters, and flies in the face of typical historical-novel romance cliches as Daphne takes control of it herself, and Moore weaves the very core of it into the most striking and important elements of the plot itself. To tie her characters to her plot so tightly is a testament to the skill of Moore’s constructive processes.

Despite being military-based (to an accessible and enjoyable level, humanised by the conflicting experiences and thought processes of her protagonist), the novel is excitingly, darkly witchy. Sacrificial imagery and cliff-top rituals in the dark lend a sense of twisted esotericism to a novel that feels otherwise very masculine and unwavering. The darkness of Moore’s magic illuminates the edges of the militaristic skeleton of the novel and casts shadows into the dark unreachable recesses of occultism and almost cult-like religious orders. By never specifically setting out the truth of these things, instead offering multiple perspectives from different characters (ritual leaders’ blind faith versus the mocking disbelief of the infantry soldiers), Moore allows a reader to make their own decisions on whether the core of The Grand Illusion is purely fiction inspired by a stray occurrence in the depths of WWII, or something more secretive and real. To take such a shred of inspiration from an unconfirmed British operation, a subtle knowledge of Nazi occultism, and to weave a tale so rich and human in the face of evil and darkness, is such a feat of skill that the novel feels as alive in its darkness as its characters do.

The Grand Illusion is a novel of questions – demanding considerations about the nature of human power, and the sources that it can be taken from. Moore questions whether belief itself is enough, whether the power of the mind to convince itself of a reality is the true nature of magic. Following the ‘Cone of Power’ ritual in the 1940s, Nazi Germany changed its course from their planned invasion of Britain to the failed ‘Operation Sea Lion’ – the invasion of Russia which ultimately lost them the war. Moore questions not only the ritual itself, but the nature of it; is magic simply an untapped human skill? Does human consciousness and understanding of reality have latent, untapped power to change fate and the future? Her protagonist Daphne – fighting a fresh personal fight against male dominated spaces, against what romance can mean as a woman unwilling to give herself entirely to a man, against the state and the information it holds about her past and her family – is constantly aware of the swirling, shifting fates around her, and through this strikingly human figure Moore asks readers what elements are out of her control, and how would life be different if she were to discover that, actually, they never were. The spectre of war has brought out the power of humanness in her characters, and Moore is refreshing in her use of this; they are not only pawns in a game they don’t understand, but richly technical, real-feeling human beings whose strange surroundings and occupations have often humorous or frightening impacts on the reality of their lives.

The novel ends with an intentional lack of understanding of the occult, more a mere suggestion that the power to change the future has always lurked in the shadowy corners of human understanding. Daphne is summoned again, back to the war machine to work on something else – assuredly the setup for the sequel. War still lingers, threatening and bleak, while the warm snippets of the earlier romance colour Daphne’s recollections. The novel’s plot forms a question, and Moore’s characters are operatives in its answer. By the end of The Grand Illusion there are so far none, but instead a quietly solid promise that these powers have so many answers to yield and experiences to colour that the following two novels will be as richly structured, tightly plotted, extensively detailed, and lyrically composed as their explosive opener. Moore has not only captured the unknown, but has made the mundane seem like a fresh battleground of promise in a way that has made The Grand Illusion genuinely innovative and exciting, enjoyably shadowy, and strikingly human from the moment that Daphne arrives to the moment that she and readers part.


THE GRAND ILLUSION is available from April 4th

Click cover to pre-order through

Georgia Smith

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