Jacob Aldridge, scion of a respectable, well off family in 1882 London, has had the shadow of tragedy hanging over him. His beloved fiancée, Rhoda Carothers, has suddenly died, and he seems more than usually affected by the tragedy. A chance meeting with Livia Aram is shocking to both, for Livia very much resembles the late Rhoda. Even more so, unbeknownst to both Livia and Jacob, the Aram and Aldridge familes have ties going back generations. Ties involving the magic of the Far East, and a demon and curse bound to the fates of both families.
Such is the tale of Mirror Maze, the supernatural fantasy novel from Michaele Jordan. Unlike the assortment of Steampunk novels set in the Victorian era, Mirror Maze eschews Steampunk for a straight up supernatural fantasy involving demons, curses, and mirrors. However, that is just about the most straightforward thing about Mirror Maze.
The book’s title refers to the use of mirrors in the book, a strong and interesting use of Victorian ideas of magic. Seances, mirrors, candles, mirrors and more are the meat and drink of magic in this universe. Did I mention mirrors? What’s more, however, the book’s title refers to the structure of the plot and how the novel unfolds. Jordan is stingy with revealing details of the characters’ past or the true nature of events, sometimes leaving a reader to wonder just what is going on until, a chapter or even a section later, a point of view shift and a revelation makes the previous section clear. For a while, reading the book, I was a bit frustrated by the extremely reflective, twisted and unreliable nature of the narrative. I suspect, however, this might be a case of changed expectations. Once I started to figure out what the author was doing in the novel, I began to expect reinterpretations and revelations after the fact. The book IS a Mirror Maze.
The core set of characters, Jacob, his sister Cecily, Livia and Rhoda are an interesting quartet, with an ever developing and changing set of relationships between them. I hesitate to go into extreme detail involving the characters, since the unfolding of the true nature of their relationships and even their true natures is part of that “mirror maze” involving the curse and the demon that overhangs them, and the others in their families. I’ve already revealed that Rhoda, despite being deceased, is a very active character in the narrative. A lot of the aspects of the novel might similarly fall into spoiler territory.
As far as the writing goes, the descriptions are lush and evocative. The novel likes to engage the senses, which goes to even better effect when the action brings us to the world beyond the mirror, but also in the waking world as well. Here, Cecily is trying to use a little Victorian magic in the cursed and haunted room of her brother:
The scent that came up from the candle was offensive, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste, wondering if the nasty thing had taken its color from genuine blood. But she dutifully held the taper before her with both hands. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” she murmured. The flame shot up, and she hesitated nervously. But her instructions were clear. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” According to Dr. Chang, it would have been better to recite the Psalm in the original Hebrew, but she did not know the language. “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
The flame subsided somewhat, although it still reached higher than a typical candle flame. And then it leaned sideways as if in a draft. A very strong, steady draft. It was unmistakably leading her somewhere, although she doubted it would bring her to still waters. “He restoreth my soul.”, she whispered and stepped in the direction to which the candle flame pointed.
The candle took her into Jacob’s study. It wavered briefly toward the desk before pointing to the chair in the corner. The chair was little used; it was a pretty thing with an embroidered seat but less than comfortable. Other chairs were called into service firt. But the candle pointed directly toward it, so Cecily approached it. The faint odor from the parlor rose up around her, growing stronger with each step, overpowering even the stench of the blood candle. It was a sweet aroma, and she could not have said what made it unpleasant, save perhaps it was perhaps a little too sweet. It was also very familiar. She had smelled it in her childhood. She declined to reflect on the occasion.
The novel rewards those who pay attention, and I felt like I was reading one of the works of Gene Wolfe, in reading Mirror Maze. I am also reminded of some of the theories of difficult fiction in Fantastika as explicated by John Stevens. Those last two sentences of the quote above, for example, are only truly explained and explicated in the last portion of the book, as some of Jacob and Cecily’s very dark family history comes to light.
I think in some ways, the novel’s expectations and intentions just manage to exceed the grasp of the author’s intent. I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy reader and reviewer, but time and again, especially in the early going, I didn’t feel that revelations came from anything than out of the blue. There are a few eddies and twirls of plot and scene that seem to also suggest things that don’t go anywhere or are not followed up upon. Sometimes the book’s narrative is a bit too obscure for its own good, in my opinion.
One other aspect of the novel I am conflicted about is the footnotes. Yes, footnotes. Flipping back and forth between the text and the end notes was a bit distracting. I have no objections to footnotes per se, but flipping back and forth between the text and the end notes was a bit distracting. So from a stylistic point of view, I think the footnotes could have been better served by placing at the bottom of the page. Also, the content of the footnotes seems to be scattershot. A few of them are of questionable inclusion. Even in this day and age, I am not sure a footnote explaining who Theseus is, for example, really useful, although the more obscure references explained were definitely useful to me as a reader.
Given everything, in sum, I feel a bit conflicted about the novel and recommending it to readers. The novel as a whole is like that, and reading the book casually, in tiny pieces, is probably going to frustrate readers who don’t have the time and temerity to pay close attention. However, if you are interested in Victorian fantasy without even a whiff of Steampunk, and are willing to work for your reading, so to speak, Mirror Maze might fit your bill.