INTRODUCTION: "The Spirit Lens" was the first novel by the author that I read completely and I quite liked it. Towards last January's review of it, I said:
"After I got into the style of the novel and its happenings started hooking me, its main attraction were the twists and turns and the characters about whom slowly we start having quite different impressions than at the start. Revelations from the past coupled to traits that come at fore only after a while mean that what we believe at the beginning will be quite changed by the end. This unpredictability raised The Spirit Lens most in my estimation since in so many genre books the characters are marked: "the destined one, the sidekick, the love interest, the villain, the noble but doomed one", while here there is much more subtlety and even at the end when we seemingly know a lot more, there is a lot of uncertainty at least with regard to the big picture."
As time passed, The Spirit Lens stayed much more in memory than other books I seemingly enjoyed more on first read, so it got a place in my recommended books of 2010, while its sequel "The Soul Mirror" became a high expectation novel for 2011. And it delivered!
The following part will have spoilers for The Spirit Lens, so beware if you have not read it so far.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The first thing to know about "The Soul Mirror" is that while a first person narration as The Spirit Lens, it switches narrators from Portier to Anne du Vernase who was a relatively minor character in the first novel, though her actions are quite important at the end of it.
Four years after the end of The Spirit Lens, 22 year old Anne du Vernase, goddaughter of King Philippe is trying hard to keep her family estate going with a disappeared father condemned in large part by her testimony as murderer and traitor, a mad mother now in keeping of her brothers far away, an imprisoned brother and a magician younger sister whose discoveries kill her just before the novel starts - at the magical College at Seravain where the 17 year old was studying. And they don't even let Anne inside when she goes to collect her sister's belongings.
The hated Portier, the investigator who broke open the big treason/necromancy case in The Spirit Lens and was the prosecutor in the King's name at the trial in-absentia of her father and his accomplices, arrives with a royal warrant demanding Anne to come to Queen Eugenie's palace in Merona as a maid of honor while also announcing the dispossession of the Vernase estates for the treason of the king's former bosom friend.
Portier is now the chief of the Queen's household administration, his former friend/helper Dante is the Queen's magician and a figure of dread and darkness, Ilario is still playing the fool, and the Queen's (adopted) mother and former Regent, Antonia is playing an "I want power" manipulation game with the Queen and her semi-estranged and pretty much always away husband King, while portents of dread and magic are continually seen in Merona.
Anne is thrown into the fray where nothing is at is seems, friends and enemies are hard to discern, while the Aspirant (supposedly her vanished traitor father) and his clique are ready to take the final step in the plans laid so long ago and that were only partly thwarted in The Spirit Lens...
If this description does not hook you let's talk about the other strengths of the novel. The narration of Anne is pitch perfect and seemed to me much smoother than Portier's from the first page. It may just be that I got used with the author' style in this series, but the pages really turned by themselves and the book hits no narrative walls.
The characters of The Spirit Lens are now seen through Anne's quite different perspective and I greatly enjoyed the glimpses we got of Portier and Ilario, while Dante becomes the truly dominant character - even as an object of fear and dread for Anne - that Portier's narration could not really portray him. We encounter other old friends and sometimes quite different facets of them than in The Spirit Lens, while the nasty and power-hungry Antonia is enjoyably loathsome and naive new Queen's physician Roussel, a kindly middle-aged commoner may be Anne's only friend at the court, or at least this is what she believes...
The Soul Mirror takes place in a shorter period of time than The Spirit Lens - as in there chapters are named by day/time - and the tension builds inexorably towards a powerful action filled last part that is awesome. Twists and turns abound and while some are of "could it really be?" far-fetched ones that experienced fantasy readers always enjoy guessing, others are more easily discernible, though all-in-all they keep the reader on his or her toes all the time.
The only minor niggle I has was that the author truly puts a lot on Anne's shoulders and at some point, I was thinking, enough, let the girl have a break, though she proves more than adept to handle her known enemies.
The world building is even better than in the first novel - again familiarity helps, but The Soul Mirror brings quite a lot of new things to what we know from The Spirit Lens - and there are quite a few moments that make one want to revisit the book quite a few times.
A novel that stakes an early claim to my Top 10 list of 2011 - currently at #2-#3 - The Soul Mirror (A++) takes the Collegia Magica series to the next level with a gripping tale that essentially ends all the threads from The Spirit Lens, though enough loose ends are left so new series books can follow. Magic, science, family feuds, a kingdom and maybe even a world - or at least its laws of nature - in peril, a great heroine with a superb cast and traditional fantasy does not get better than this!