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nothing but the thrill
on 12 May 2013
The Obsidian Mirror (TOM) reads like the kind of novel I would imagine being written for young people in the 21st century assuming that 1) their attention spans have been diminished, and 2) their interest in edge-of-the-seat excitement beats that of character development every time. This may be true, and I am not (here's the caveat) the book's intended audience ... but still, I seem to have been reading a different book to everyone else. There's something about TOM that makes me feel like I've been reading a novel on Twitter ... a thousand fragments of stuff happening somehow merged into 393 pages of story.
At the centre of the tale is the Chronoptika, a dark mirror housed within the equally foreboding Wintercombe Abbey; a place that feels penned in by winter and which is presided over by the reclusive Oberon Venn. Angry schoolboy Jake Wilde (!) is convinced his guardian Venn has murdered his father and is determined to confront him, conniving to be sent back to the Abbey for a showdown. When he arrives, under the escort of his teacher Wharton, he discovers that the truth is far more complex and fantastical than he could ever have imagined. The mirror has drawn around it a web of characters--the girl Sarah who is being chased by a Replicant and a wolf; the scarred man; Venn's servant Piers; the enigmatic Shee; and others--whose motives and connections will be revealed along with the true extent of the mirror's power.
Fisher's imagination, and her ability to create a sense of place with so few words are amazing; Wintercombe Abbey is substantial and feels like a cross between Castle Gormenghast and Satis House, set in Narnia. There are some small evocative descriptions of the Shee, when marching to the aid of Sarah for example, or dissolving into a flock of starlings, that are full of atmosphere ... but overall, I'm left with the feeling that the scale of this novel is all wrong. The story in this first book of the series would have easily filled a trilogy, had it been allowed to slow down for just a moment. As it is, each chapter is loaded with cliff-hangers, as though Fisher is worried her readers won't last a few pages without SOMETHING happening, and for me this fragmentation is distracting. Ultimately, in trying to inject continual pace and excitement, the opposite scenario is achieved and the sheer volume of events renders them dull--after all, if there is nothing but the thrill itself, what is there to compare it with?
The biggest casualties from this approach though are the characters. I'm struggling to remember any of them as individual entities, certainly Sarah and Rebecca are interchangeable types. Moll is a stand-alone creation but only because she is representative of a time and place and her language creates a contrast. Venn, Jake and Wharton are never more than caricatures (guilty-obsessive; angst-ridden teenager; strong but kind respectively). All the characters are subjugated to pace; their revelations are all devices for moving on events, their changes of heart unconvincing, and it all just feels laboured. It's sad that we're never given the time to learn about them, to love or hate them as we should. I do concede that the Shee, Piers and the Replicant are more strongly realised, but feel this is because they are creations of fantasy, rather than humans, and therefore require more description. Oh how I wish the other characters could've merited that!
Deprived of connection with the characters and bombarded with action, I actually got bored reading this. I shouldn't have been able to stop reading as the novel reached its climactic final section and yet I stopped 2 chapters from the end without any compulsion to finish (I did read the end this morning); I certainly don't want to continue the series, and that's a huge shame. Movies may be able to beguile us with CGI action sequences whilst character and narrative flounder in obscurity, but a book shouldn't be able to get away with that, and TOM doesn't.