This was my first book by Marillier, so I really looked forward to reading it. I’m going to start with a brief synopsis, followed by a brief list of the things I liked and disliked, and ending with my general thoughts.
The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier
The novel starts with the installment of our protagonist, Bridei, into the home of King’s Druid, Broichan, where he will be trained and educated to fulfill a secret destiny. Bridei is the future king of the Fortriu, a sixth century, Pictish kingdom in Scotland. He does not know this, his identity as a candidate for the throne is kept from him until adulthood, in order to allow him to grow and develop without the heavy burden of what will be expected of him.
One day, Bridei discovers a foundling on his doorstep, but she is no ordinary girl. She is one of the Good Folk. Despite this, Bridei sees her appearance as divine intervention by the Shining One and takes the child in, names her “Tuala”, and installs her in the household while the master - Broichan - is away.
The rest of the story follows the development of both Bridei and Tuala as their lives intertwine, coming together and drifting (seemingly) apart. In the end, choices must be made, secrets are revealed, and we see them reunited and installed, happily, as the future leaders of their realm.
First, What I liked:
- I appreciated the research undertaken by the author, as it shows through in the details of the households, political structures, and religious rites.
- The writing is clear and strong, the characters well drawn. There were no obvious technical faults with the writing that detracted from the reading.
Unfortunately, the first list is short.
Second, What I disliked:
- Bridei, the precocious child, was too perfect to be flesh-and-blood. Such a goody-goody, I just couldn’t like him. Perhaps this says more about me than Bridei. I'll confess, generally, I don’t enjoy stories of precocious children. This was the same issue I had with Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Long descriptions of how a genius child excels at training for an exalted, secret destiny…just leave me flat. I can’t relate to these children and their perfection is grating. Oh sure, I love characters with abilities beyond my own, fantastical or otherwise, but stories of over-the-top savants, especially if they are set up to be morally superior, well where’s the interest? Where’s the character development? With Bridei, there is a slight shift. As he comes into his own, he starts to question his foster father, Broichan, but it is too little, too late. I couldn’t see any other change in him. He’s essentially the same throughout the book.
- The relationship between Bridei and Tuala. It turned romantic, and it turned on a dime. I saw it coming, but because it is endlessly foretold by two Fae. We see her pine for him, but it isn’t until they are separated that she begins to understand her true feelings for him. In fact, that may be my main issue: they develop their romance independent of one another and when they are separated by quite a lot of time and space. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it just wasn’t compelling or satisfying to me, especially since they are not together, minus one brief scene, once they’ve realized their romantic feelings.
- Tuala - she is a very weak person. She seems to float on the whims of those around her - the Good Folk/Fae, Broichan, Bridei, and later Fola and her priestesses. I know she is a woman in the sixth century, a Fae, and an outsider. Marillier sets all this up very well, so we know why she is treated poorly. I even understand Tuala’s reaction to her treatment. She’s downtrodden and frightened, a victim. I just don’t like her. I wanted her to do something, be something other than Bridei’s shoulder-to-cry-on in order to earn her place with him. I want her to throw a shoe at the Good Folk. Just do something that isn't completely passive.
- The Fae - they seemed there just to TELL me what was happening in the plot, like I was too daft to see it myself. I don’t like the device with the Fae - they are like a bad chorus in a Greek tragedy. I found them distracting.
- The star-crossed lovers, thwarted by misinformation because they just don’t think things through. Again, with the romance, they are confounded by Broichan’s machinations - which seemed so obvious to me. I know they are supposed to be young and easily manipulated…but it doesn’t make for interesting reading to me. Give me more of the consequences of her heritage and less of misinformation as a hindrance to their relationship.
- In general, too much description, too little dramatic action or emotional development. There was a lot that could have been focused on, but I felt my head was held in the wrong direction, forcing me to focus on the things I cared the least about.
ConclusionI don’t know that this story is bad. The technical writing, character drawing, descriptions - they are all very lovely. However, the story didn’t resonate with me.
In spite of this, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it. It just wasn’t for me, for the reasons I’ve stated above. Even with my reservations, I am still tempted to read the sequel (this is book one of a trilogy). That should tell you something about the quality of the writing. However, the sequel won’t go to the top of my towering reading pile. Marillier goes into the “some day” pile for now. After all, you have to find the writing that excites you as a reader. Too little time for anything else.
Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.