REVIEW: Dark Mirror by Mary Jo Putney
Dear Ms. Putney,
I have always enjoyed your romances, ever since I started reading romance nigh on six years ago. I particularly enjoyed The Marriage Spell, which was a hybrid of fantasy and regency—a hybrid that very much appealed to me. Although there is a tradition within YA and fantasy novels of depicting alternate histories of England in which magic is real, this is not a technique that has often been utilized in the romance genre. At least, not to the extent that romance has crossed into horror or urban fantasy with the paranormal romance.
Having read The Marriage Spell, I was really looking forward to future books in The Stone Saints series. Alas, this was not to be. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but for whatever reason that series never saw the light of day after The Marriage Spell. Secondary characters from that book were subsequently transformed into boring, ordinary, totally magic-less heroes for your Lost Lords series. Well, that’s how I read them, in any case.
Thus, it was very interesting to me, indeed, when I learned that you were going to be branching out into the YA genre with a new book, this book. It became even more interesting to me when I realized that you were using the basic world of The Marriage Spell, albeit tweaked just a little. I suspect that other romance readers who have read and enjoyed that book will find themselves on familiar terra firma when they crack the spine of this new book, Dark Mirror.
Like The Marriage Spell, Dark Mirror is set in a Regency England in which magic exists. Not only does it exist but it is openly acknowledged. Neither Church nor State prosecutes magic and the English people themselves are comfortable with the idea of magic and mages. The only group of people for whom magic is less than desirable is the Upper Ten Thousand or those who have pretentions to make that the Upper Ten Thousand and One. Social climbers and aristocrats find magic vulgar and mean, much in the same way that they would find anyone involved in trade or manufacturing. It is not a sin, but it is a sign of ill-breeding and general lack of taste.
Into this world enters the heroine, Lady Victoria Mansfield (called Tory by her family). Tory is the daughter of an Earl and has no desire whatsoever to have anything to do with magic. Thus, it comes as somewhat of a shock when she wakes up from a dream about flying to discover herself floating above her bed. Startling enough in itself, the situation worsens when her mother walks in on her. Her mother does not act in the predictable way. She doesn’t seem surprised, she just seems sad. Tory discovers that magic is an unfortunate trait that she inherited from her Russian grandmother, a trait that seems to have affected all the women in her mother’s family to varying degrees. By far, though, Tory’s magic is the most powerful. Her mother warns her that it is best to hide the magic lest her father, who is hyper-conscious of his dignity, send her to the notorious reform school, one Lackland Abbey, for all aristocratic children unfortunate enough to have been born with, and who have displayed, a tendency towards magic.
Tory is only too happy to comply with her mother’s request. But I think you can guess, dear readers, where this is going. Tory is presented with a moral conundrum, if there ever was one, not a day after the revelation of her own particular skills. During a garden party her mother is holding, her young nephew goes over a cliff’s edge. Instead of falling to his death, the toddler ends up caught on some branches growing out of the side of the cliff face. No one can get to him because the edges of the cliff crumble under too much weight. But Tory can get to him, of course, because she can fly. The choice is one between saving her nephew or retaining her reputation. Because Tory is a heroine, in the true sense of that word, she chooses her nephew. But it is a choice not without severe consequences herself.
She is immediately snubbed and cut by everyone present (with the exception of her brother and sister-in-law) and worse, her father rejects her near totally, having her pack for Lackland Abbey, to which he will send her the next day. Tory, herself, swings between feeling the injustice of her punishment, betrayed by those she loves the most, and hope that successfully graduating from Lackland Abbey will allow her, once again, to return to her old life. But it is the slow dissolution of that hope that occupies most of the story. Or rather, the realization on Tory’s part that her magic is a gift, not a curse, and that whatever happens at Lackland Abbey, she cannot return to her old life.
Dark Mirror, in these early chapters, has all the markings of a school story. Tory meets the various characters occupying Lackland Abbey: there are the outcasts who revel in their powers, the abusive and mean-spirited teacher, the spoilt beauty, and since Lackland Abbey is a co-ed institution (or rather, there’s a boys’ side and a girls’ side), the requisite unattainable dreamboat.
Warning! Some SPOILERS ahead:
But suddenly the story takes a bit of a twist. Tory discovers that beneath Lackland Abbey are medieval tunnels constructed back when the abbey was a working monastery. It is here, in these tunnels, that two professors—one from the girls’ side and one from the boys’—train a group of students to control their magic. It is the belief of this group that Napoleon is going to attack England before long and, as with the Spanish armada, it is up to the mages of England to push back this threat.
But that’s not all. During one of the yearly raids that the school governors performs on the tunnels of Lackland Abbey, Tory gets separated from her group and stumbles into a tunnel. The raiders are hot on her heels, and before she quite knows what is happening, a dark mirror has appeared before her and she falls into it. Emerging on the other side, Tory has no idea where she is. But she swiftly realizes that she is not in her own time. In fact, she has stumbled one hundred and fifty years into the future at a time when Britain is again threatened by an army marching across Europe. Only this time, it is the Germans, not the French. The rest of the book has Tory and her friends going back and forth through time using their magic not to prevent the invasion of Napoleon, but the invasion of Hitler.
I was not expecting this, but once I got used to the divergent track the story took, I found it much more enjoyable than if it had stayed the school story it had stared out as. In employing the time travel, Putney creates much more complex and interesting plot than it would have been if there was just a lot of midnight meetings and school rivalries. In fact, I get a little sick of the main obstacle in the path of the heroine being whether or not she triumphs socially.
To be fair, though, I think that this switch is so unexpected as to be somewhat abrupt. The earlier chapters really do set this novel up to be a typical school story. I do not see a lot of hints, early on, as to the change that will occur. Once it does, the story moves smoothly forward. But the switch from school story to time travel does seem rather out of the blue—it is as if the book started out in one kind of genre and ended in another. However, once it was done, the story was much more exciting and interesting, so I guess I can forgive the change.
In many, many ways, this book does not differ from other Putney stories. The characters are well crafted and simultaneously adhere to a type, whilst breaking out of the stereotype. Take the character of Cynthia Stanton, daughter to a duke. At the beginning of the story she occupies the position of rival and tormenter, the position Draco Malfoy held in the Harry Potter series; but when the book takes its turn into a different adventure, so too does her character turn. Suddenly, it becomes clear to Tory and, even more so, to the reader, that Cynthia is not the shallow and arrogant miss she seems. I point this out because I think it is one of Putney’s strengths as a writer. In fact, one of the things I’ve always liked about Putney is that she uses the tropes and conventions of the genre she’s working in but she always complicates them in a really interesting way. Cynthia Stanton’s character is just one way in which she does this in Dark Mirror.
Those familiar with Putney’s romance novels should know that tonally the book is much more juvenile and, I think, some would even say anachronistic than other Putney books. That is, the way Putney uses prose here is dissimilar enough from her other books that I noticed it. While the slightly more teenaged tenor of the prose was initially a bit jarring (I mean, Tory as a nickname?), ultimately I did not think that this prose style or tonal style was a problem for two reasons: 1) it is a book meant for a younger audience. Labeling it as a YA means that, not only will it be devoid of sex scenes, but that it will occupy shelf space at libraries and bookstores intended for children ages 12-18, possibly younger as in 5th and 6th graders. Because of this the more juvenile tone is appropriate. And 2) because it is a time-travel and book in which magic works, it occupies an alterior space in history. That is, it is a story set in an already anachronistic and ahistorical frame which, while it shares our history, also does not share our history in one important way: it has magic. This might seem like splitting hairs, but I think it is an important differentiation because whether the story works or not is less about being mimetically accurate to a “real world” and more about maintaining and deploying an internal logic that is cohesive with the world in which the story takes place. Does the magic work? Does it fit itself to those aspects of history it takes from? I think this is a point, quite frankly, that probably needs to be reiterated with every book regardless or setting and supernatural occurrence. However, I did feel both of these points needed to be mentioned since romance readers may be going into this Putney expecting an historical romance (whatever that is) and getting a slightly different kind of book in a slightly different genre.
There is romance in this book. But I do not think that this book is a romance novel. Instead, it is much more kin and cousin to books like Sorcery and Cecelia or The Perilous Garde. The love story is important, but it is not central. What is central is the girl’s own adventure story quality of this novel. Tory is an intrepid heroine: she time-travels, she rescues soldiers, she trains to fight in, not one, but two wars. She begins to think for herself about what she wants, and takes pleasure in her learning about her own powers and talents. In short, she has an adventure and like all adventures, it changes her. It’s very Joseph Campbell, really.
If you are like me, and enjoy the mish-mash of romance and fantasy, then this is probably a book you will enjoy. If you are also like me and loathe unending fantasy series (George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you, you son of a bitch), then be assured: while this book has a sequel in the works, it also stands on its own. An enjoyable and engaging read, full of adventure and love. B