A familiar skeleton of a tale.
A lost ruler or aspirant to rule of a magical land has been banished, and lost his allies, friends and even his memory. He lives his life on Earth, unaware of his true role and nature, until a meeting with an ally from his old realm shows up at his door. Said ally, and an imminent threat, together set him on a course to return to the magical land of his birth, to regain himself, his forces and help save the Land he doesn’t even know he loves from the threat of dissolution and destruction. But will he lose himself in the process, or did his time in exile make him someone better, someone more suited to the role? And what price is there to pay?
Not only is it the story of such novels as Nine Princes in Amber, but also The Mirror Prince, by Violette Malan.
The Mirror Prince is the story of Max Ravenhill. Max is a Professor in Toronto, with a rather ordinary and humdrum existence. His memory taken from him, he has no idea that he was, once, the Guardian Prince, the figure responsible for helping designate a ruler, a High Prince of the Land. He has no idea that the Basilisk Prince, denied the blessing of Max to be ruler, warred against him, won, and banished him on Earth with no memory of any of this. Hundreds of years have passed, with Max living life after life, watched over by wardens of his Exile. When things in Faerie seem to have reached a crisis point with the unjust rule of the Basilisk Prince, Max’s Exile must end prematurely, and his true nature and memories restored. But would that destroy Max in the process?
While much of The Mirror Prince is composed of familiar elements in the broad sense of the word, from the plot to the Faerie versus Earth dichotomy, there was plenty here to keep me reading and enjoying it. Malan is a very good writer on the technical side, and even in her first novel, made the book a compulsive read without resorting to some of the oft-clumsy tricks and strategies first time novelists use to try and keep the pages turning. The writing is bright and clear, and the world of Faerie, where most of the action takes place, invoked well. Her philosophy is that the tales we have of Faerie, the stories from myth and folklore are at best an incomplete picture. To depict the entirety of Faerie as being the same as those tales would be akin to going to Sbarros would be all you need to know about Italian cuisine. She puts this on the page, producing a society and variety of Faerie far more complex than a Sidhe and Unseelie Court that many authors seem satisfied with.
The characters, from Max and the Basilisk Prince on down, are an interesting and engaging lot, with complexity to the lot of them. The inner struggles of Max are reflected, reverberate and also appear in other characters,as conflicting desires, nature and goals. Max and the Basilisk Prince are the two poles that characters find themselves drawn and repulsed from, and plenty of neutrals in the middle for good measure, and none are easily sorted into columns and sides on the chessboard. Even the antagonist of the tale, the Basilisk Prince, shows some well-appreciated complexity, rather than being a straight black hat. (although he does engage in some heinous acts).
What didn’t work for me quite as well? I think Max needed a little more foregrounding in his life and role in Toronto, in the Shadowlands of Earth before we see him arrive in Faerie. A little more of that foregrounding would make some of the character shifts and changes somewhat clearer. In addition, the motivations and actions of one of the minor characters, even after the fact, seem a little murky.
One other thing, and perhaps the biggest, is that, although the book is a straight shot into Faerie, and is not particularly treading new ground, there is plenty in Malan’s Faerie world that are only hinted at, and I wanted to know more about.
While things like magical weapons and armor (gra’if) are detailed and their nature are essential to the plot and are well developed, other things get much shorter shrift, such as the nature of the various peoples in Faerie. It’s clear, like an iceberg, there is a lot of hidden depth and detail we are only hinted at, and not shown, and I think its a strength that the author could have leveraged more, even if only in something like an appendix.
To give one other example, every one of the non-Naturals Faerie we meet has some sort of heraldic beast that, in naming themselves, they say guides them. There seems to be a variety of them. How many of them are there? Is this something chosen or is it quasi-astrological? What really in the end does having a particular guidebeast *mean*? Inquiring Readers want to know!
In any event, The Mirror Prince is not particularly innovative (and as I said above, could have used some more delineation of the innovation we see), but it is well written, entertaining, and, happily, the author has, years after this one, written a work set in the same universe, The Shadowlands. I am more than inclined to continue the story of the People, the Lands and the Shadowlands. It will be interesting for me, as a reader, to see how the author, years after writing this, returns to this world and its characters.