Friday, March 20, 2020

Through a Brazen Mirror

Delia Sherman
Completed 3/19/2020, Reviewed 3/20/2020
4 stars

This book is based on fragments of an old English ballad that was reconstructed the ‘70s.  It’s about a woman who dresses up as a man and becomes advisor to the King.  It’s sort of a “Victor/Victoria” story, but told in medieval times and very serious.  I found it a little dry, but I really enjoyed it.  Sherman has wonderful prose and story-telling ability.  She’s gone on to be nominated and win several awards for her period pieces and her YA work.

Elinor Flower’s husband and infant son are murdered by ruffians hired by her evil sorceress birth mother, Lady Margaret.  She dresses as a man using the name of her husband, William, and gets a job as an undercook for the King.  Due to her industriousness, she very quickly advances in rank, becoming a close advisor of the King, much to the consternation of the castle staff and noblemen.  Throughout this time, Lady Margaret continually tries to kill Elinor/William, not directly, as it is forbidden by the laws of sorcery to kill kin.  It seems there’s a prophesy that Lady Margaret will be killed by her own daughter and she does everything possible to subvert the prophesy. 

The book reads very easily, once you get the jumping timelines down.  The narrative follows William coming to the castle and working.  It jumps to Lady Margaret’s orders to kill Elinor’s family.  I follows Elinor’s birth and later her young life with foster parents.  Then it follows Lady Margaret’s attempts to kill William.  The use of William and Elinor is significant here as the story is told about Elinor as Elinor and Elinor as William. 

The character development is interesting.  The most colorful characters are the supporting cast, including the King, Elinor’s foster mother, Lady Margaret, and several women who fall for William.  Elinor/William is cold and aloof, which one would expect in her gender-bending situation.  However, it prevents us from seeing much inside her/him.  This is my only problem with the book.  If part of the narrative was told from her point of view, I think it would have made for a warmer book. 

One of the reasons I probably really enjoyed this book so much was that I got to read it in one day.  This of course is the time of the Corona Virus Pandemic.  I’m working from home, and there was not much work the day I read it.  So read it I did, in roughly half a day.  Once you’re into it, it’s a fast read, even though the dialogue is a little archaic and written messages and letters are very archaic.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s terrific fantasy with magic and demons all told in a pseudo-Middle-Age England setting.  It’s a hard book to find as it’s out of print.  I got a second edition used copy from the ‘90s.  But I think it’s a hidden gem that deserves a little more attention than it gets.

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