One night in Waterloo, Iowa, the Amazing Arden, completes a magic trick she has done many times before. She is famous for her half man trick in which she saws a man in half. This time, however, she innovates and uses a fire ax.
The man, presumably her husband, is later found under the stage--killed by an ax wound to the chest. Virgil Holt, a Deputy Sheriff, apprehends her but Arden claims to be innocent.
Along with the Sheriff, readers must decide whether her story is believable. Parts of her story are difficult for the sheriff to believe. Ray a maniac that she meets while still a young girl living in Tennessee, has healing powers. He is a healer and a destroyer-in-one, yet its hard to believe no one detects his treachery.
Arden, then named Ava, teaches herself ballet via the Cecchetti method, in order to escape from Ray's abuse. This plan fails when Ray breaks her leg. Ava run away from home and becomes a servant in the Vanderbilt household.
At Biltmore, Ava falls for Clyde who has considerable talents. He is a gardener who can also turn a profit scouting talent in New York. Ava, still running from Ray, takes off with Clyde where she takes a small part in the legendary Adelaide Hermann's magic act.
Magic and performing becomes Ava's new life. Her business manager, which by coincidence is Clyde, renames her The Amazing Arden. Her show is successful and she is happy for a time until tragedy strikes.
Macallister includes many accurate details in this historical fiction, including the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903 and details from the life of Adelaide Hermann.
Arden is a fascinating character as are Virgil and Ray. The one flaw in the novel is Clyde who is almost too versatile. He is a rake, a hero, a gardener, and a business manager. The ending is, thus. only partly satisfying.
If you like The Magician's Lie, you may like Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants or Chrysler Szalan's The Hawley Book of the Dead.
Other books with circus acts, magic tricks, or performing arts as their main themes are Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation and Leslie Parry's Church of Marvels.