Readers, I am having more difficulty than I realized focusing on reading, much less reviewing right now. As a result, I am postponing Book Uno indefinitely, but will do my best to continue with the book club. Reviews will still be very slow. I apologize, but hope for your patience and understanding in this.
Pitnochie is a busy, strange place, especially for young Bridei. Sent there by his parents at a very young age, Bridei is looked after by his foster father, Broichan—a humorless druid who leaves the care of his home and the boy (aside from his education) mostly in the hands of others; the housekeeper, cook, and a myriad of household assistants who warm to the boy with ease.
He is never quite sure what he’s meant to do with the education received at the small house and Broichan refuses to tell him more about his parents as Bridei grows older and his memories of them fade. But learn he does, about the different kinds of magic and of the Fae world the druid believes to be dangerous. It goes without saying, that any of the Fae kind are just as dangerous. When Bridei discovers a small bundle on the front step in the middle of a harsh winter, he doesn’t think such a small baby could do any harm at Pitnochie, Fae or not.
With lovely chapter heading illustrations, a wonderful little map, and the promise of an epic tale of Arthurian proportions, The Dark Mirror seemed like it would be a fresh new Fantasy story. In fact, the first few chapters reminded me so much of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (which I absolutely love) that, despite the obvious setting up of Bridei’s mystical and powerful future and the tired obeisances to ethereal beings, such as the moon or different kinds of trees, I continued to read.
But the beginning turned into more than just 50 pages. The meandering prose gradually became saturated with something darker than White’s charming tale, which could only be a good thing as I found myself not wanting to compare the two. Anything to distinguish The Dark Mirror as its own solid work was encouraging and I was curious to see this tale gain solid footing in its own mysticism and grandeur. Unfortunately, I never quite found the balance I needed between the large focus on ritual, Bridei’s future, and the roles of the other characters to develop any kind of connection to the story, or an interest in where and how everyone else would be involved. I found myself setting the book aside without feeling any interest to continue several times. Eventually, I made the tough decision to stop reading. I did not finish The Dark Mirror.
From previous experience, I knew Marillier could lean toward the clichéd “show don’t tell,” but I did expect something different between Wildwood Dancing—a novel written for a younger audience—and The Dark Mirror—an adult Fantasy. As it was, I kept hoping I would be taken on Bridei’s curious didactic adventures in much the same way White did for a young Arthur. In that way, we learn to care for him and see how he develops the skills needed for ruling Camelot. We yearn for him to do well as he makes mistakes or struggles to grasp larger concepts or ideals, despite knowing that he will be king and that he will master these things. However, for Bridei and his story, the distance between Bridei in the moment and the Bridei everyone but him hopes he will become (for Bridei is too young yet to understand) was too great. There is far too much emphasis on where Bridei will go and not enough on Bridei as a boy who is learning, the protagonist this reader needed to connect with.
Even Tuala, the strange, yet fascinating little Fae girl began to feel like an instrument of long-winded ritual. She pines for Bridei after he leaves Pitnochie, but the few scenes of the two together as children did little in the way of developing their relationship as something convincingly worth pining over. Yes, Tuala was lonely and becomes ostracized at home without Bridei to stand up for her, which is very interesting. Discussions of Otherness and pre-conceived judgements based on fear, especially as related to the fantastical elements of this story, are something I thought would work well. But it was at this point that I realized it was better if I set the book aside. Even this, the most interesting aspect of the book, was not quite enough to encourage me to finish.
There are some positives, though. Tuala is an interesting female character and, had I read further, I am almost positive she would have grown into her own very well, if slowly. Her story is, after all, closely tied with Bridei’s future, or so we are constantly told. The potential complication she represents is not entirely clear in the first 200 or so pages. Marillier introduces readers to her magical abilities innate to her Fae heritage, curious in comparison to anything Bridei might be learning. The difference between the methods of Tuala’s magic and Bridei’s, the difference of where each comes from, in fact, seems to be key to where the story might lead. One, a child of careful planning and hope; the other, a wild unknown with a vested interest in unknowingly drawing the other away from the destiny others would have of him. Perhaps the ending would have brought some satisfaction to this curiosity. Perhaps not.
The world-building and secondary characters were less interesting, although some readers may enjoy the dynamic of the household and their superstitions. In the end, I find myself unable to define how these disparate elements failed to come together for me. Whether it was a disconnect between Bridei’s vague destiny and the boy he is for most of the first part of the book, the momentum I did not feel in the prose, or disbelief in the depth of Bridei and Tuala’s relationship, the book simply was not for me. That is not to say other readers will feel the same way. I encourage anyone who enjoys a slow burn Fantasy to give The Dark Mirror a try. It is the first in a series of books, titled after Bridei. As such, it’s unclear if Tuala plays a more pivotal role in future installments. There is, however, the promise of plenty of Bridei.
Release Date: June 2006
Reviewed Format: Trade paperback
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