Monday, February 21, 2011

Dark Mirror by MJ Putney

Sometimes, you go into a book a little skeptical because it's out of your usual taste. It's not something you'd tend to pick up on your own. But then you open it and realize you're more than half way through and are enjoying it a lot. And then you're eager to talk about it.

That was exactly my experience with MJ Putney's first young adult novel, Dark Mirror, due out March 1 by St. Martin's Griffin.

It's 1803 and Victoria -- Tory -- Mansfield has an idea what her life will be like: she's grown up in a family with a real name and status, so she's pretty much set. She'll marry well and she'll be wealthy and admired for life.

That is, until she discovers a deep secret buried in her family's history: she has a magical power. Horrified to discover this about herself, she tries to hide it, but when tragedy strikes at a party, she can't help but use her talents to save the life of another person, even if it means she's found out. Her father wastes no time in disciplining his daughter for causing such a scene and sends her to Lackland Academy, a school meant to rid children of the evils. See, it's a time of war in England, and a time when everyone is on edge about any person who is slightly different. They could be enemies, so it's necessary to reform these people and get them in line. And don't even begin to think this helps a wealthy family's reputation, either.

When she arrives at the Academy, she's worried about life with a cold roommate and worried about her ability to reform enough to gain the trust of her family again. But she won't be worried too long about it when she discovers others at the Academy might want to lure her into using her power for good, rather than suppressing it.

Sounds good so far, right? It's a nice fantasy storyline. But wait: this gets better.

One day while meeting with the other rebellious Academy students, Tory gets off course in the underground tunnels they meet in and falls into a mirror. Not just any mirror, mind you, but a mirror that when she falls into it, she's sent forward in time to World War II. Tory meets the ancestors of one of her rebellious Academy friends and discovers what was once her school no longer stands as it used to. War and time have demolished everything she knows, and with fear everywhere, Tory begins to think about how she can help these people -- and she realizes her power, combined with that of those she knows from her 1803 Academy -- might be able to change the course of the war entirely.

Putney's novel is a fast-paced historical fantasy that really hooked me from page one. This is a plot-driven novel, and that is something you must keep in mine while reading. I didn't get to know Tory all that well when reading, nor did I get to know Allarde, her romantic interest. But that's okay, actually, because this is a book about a story. Tory and her classmates each have interesting powers within them: she has the power to fly and one of her companions is able to change the weather. These, along with a host of other powers, when used together have the ability to change the course of history. And why wouldn't they?

What I liked most about this book were the realizations that Tory had throughout. As a reader, I kept wondering what it would be like were I transformed backwards in time nearly two centuries; I wouldn't be typing this blog post nor would I be able to pick up my groceries by car. Well, imagine the reverse: imagine being thrust ahead two centuries? Tory and her classmates are completely stunned to see moving vehicles, to learn about planes and what destruction those and boats can cause, and they're blown away by things like indoor bathrooms. Although smaller pieces in the bigger book, I think these were among my favorite parts -- I really felt I got to know the characters, but I also felt like it really nailed the historical aspects of the story for me. On a larger level, though, are the ah ha moments Tory has about how history is repetitive and how small things can completely change end results. When she's in her original time period, Britain is at war with France and the country is fearful of anyone slightly suspicious; in her time travel existence, Britain is engaged in a war with Germany and the Nazis, and anyone suspicious is considered an enemy. Then there's the entire idea of Merlin's mirror and how that reflects on these same realizations; by melding mythology into the story line and making it a key component, as readers we, too, see just how much our reality is shaped by our own fantasy.

If you weren't aware, Putney is well known for her adult romance novels, and she uses that background in building a romance between Tory and Allarde, a boy she meets early on in her time at the Academy. As readers, we are never completely certain where their interactions will lead, but we have an inkling that something intense will build between them. But these scenes are well done and add a lot to the characters and our understanding of their motives.

The writing in Dark Mirror is serviceable. It's not bad but it's not spectacular, and I think that's sort of how it needs to work when the story being told is so complex. I found some passages a little clunky, and some of the romantic passages felt a little cliche for me. But because story is at the center of the novel, this is all forgivable.

My biggest qualm with the story, though, is two fold: this is the first book in a series, and I feel like book can stand alone perfectly. That is, except for the prologue. I know the prologue meant to serve as a big of a background setting for why magic was worrisome in this historical moment, but it never came to a satisfying conclusion for me. It will likely be woven into the greater series; however, because I'm satisfied with how the story concluded, I don't necessarily desire more in the end. I kind of like where it stops. Another small issue I had was one of my own as a reader -- I did not want to suspend my belief that it takes Tory so long to realize she even holds a magical power. It's hard for me to believe she was clueless for 15 years about her ability to fly. This, though, I think goes back to my desire for stronger character development and focus on Tory's internal dialogue.

Putney's novel will have wide appeal to fantasy fans, as well as fans of historical fiction. This is the kind of novel that will appeal not only to teens but also to adults, as it has the right elements to satisfy both. By not giving Tory too much internal dialogue or too many moments that feel teenage (which you do and should get in a solid historical or contemporary title), the appeal is wider. Dark Mirror surprised me, since it's not usually my kind of read, but I liked it. Despite having to suspend my beliefs on some stuff, this book worked really well for me. There were so many things to grab on to and enjoy, and readers of fantasy, historical, romance will enjoy this, as will those who enjoy a good genre-bending tale where story is at the core of the book.

And lucky you! St. Martin's Griffin is kindly offering a copy of Putney's book for one reader. Fill out the form below, and I'll pick a winner the second week of March.


3 comments:

  1. This sounds like an interesting read. I'm on the fence though as I'm not a huge fantasy or hist fic reader. It does sound compelling though. I'll have to wait and see if time changes my mind. :)

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  2. Thanks! I've been looking forward to this book because I'm a long term Mary Jo Putney fan (but I get that she's not all that for everyone) and a fairly new reader of YA novels.

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  3. I will definitely pick this one up whenever I get a chance (my teens have hijacked the ARC, which is awesome!).

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