In case you haven’t figured it out yet I have rather eclectic tastes. I love to read a broad range of subjects and genres. I enjoy everything from history, politics, and philosophy to literature, theology, and sports. I enjoy reading practically every type of fiction from literary novels and classic literature to crime fiction, spy thrillers, and fantasy. I also enjoy reading books loosely categorized as young adult (YA) fiction. In particular I enjoy young adult fantasy fiction. I am not sure how this came about, maybe it was the Harry Potter phenomenon that reminded me how much I enjoyed these type of books when I was younger. Given their recent surge in popularity and success I thought it might be fun to see what the kids are reading these days. Plus, they are light relaxing reads.
In this vein, I decided to check out a work that was very successful in Europe and was generating some buzz here in the states. The Water Mirror: Dark Reflections is the first book in a series by German author Kai Meyer. Meyer is an internationally renowned author of novels for both adults and YA, but this is his first book published in the U.S. It was a best seller in Europe and has been translated into fourteen languages around the world. The American release is by Margaret K. McElderry Books (a Simon and Schuster imprint) and is translated by Elizabeth D. Crawford.
The Water Mirror is set in the canals and palazzos of turn of the century Venice. But this is not exactly the Venice of our world. Instead, it is an alternate world where magic and mystery abound. There are mermaids – with large mouths full of sharp teeth – that swim in the canals and stone lions that patrol the bridges. And the Egyptian army, led my a terrible magician who controls an army of mummies, has laid siege to Venice. The only thing protecting the vulnerable city is a mystical force known as the Flowing Queen.
With this as a setting the story focuses on the orphans Merle and Junipa who are apprenticed to a magical mirror maker. Magic flows around Merle and Junipa as well. Merle, whose parents abandoned her in a basket in the canals, has a hand mirror that has magical qualities. The magician Arcimboldo to whom they are apprenticed fashions magical glasses for the blind Junipa which give her a sort of sight. As the lowest on the apprentice totem poll the girls learn little about the true magical qualities of the mirrors nor do they know much about their master.
The plot picks up when Merle sets off on an adventure with Serafin, a boy from a rival magic shop across the canal that she is finds herself attracted to despite, or maybe because of, the rivalry. In search of this adventure Serafin reveals some of the mysterious qualities of the city to Merle. In the course of this adventure, the two adolescents overhear a traitorous plot to turn the city over to the Egyptians by capturing the Flowing Queen. Through a series of twists and turns Merle finds herself fleeing the city guards and on a quest to save the Flowing Queen and thus ultimately the city itself.
The Water Mirror is an imaginative and intriguing start to a fantasy series. There is a dark and melancholy tone that matches the setting of Venice with its damp alleys and shadows. Everything is not quite what it seems and danger lurks behind every turn. The magical creatures along with the mystical history and nature of Venice (with other worldly characteristics only hinted at) make a great backdrop for the story.
Merle is a rather stock character for these type of stories: an nervous but precocious orphan who wonders what her life will bring gets caught up in a cause bigger than her self and is forced to face her destiny. It probably isn’t fair but it is hard not to see her in the Harry Potter mode: orphan with a magical destiny. The other characters aren’t particularly well, or deeply, drawn either but this is often an obvious limit of YA. But the characters are interesting enough to keep the story going and the reader intrigued.
In fact, the strength of this book is the way it lays out the background and sketches the characters as a way to introduce the series. In my opinion it doesn’t make a great stand alone story because the plot meanders a bit and the characters are all left a little fuzzy. But as the first in a series it holds promise because of its imaginative setting and magical creatures. You want to keep reading to learn more about what or who the Flowing Queen is; to understand more about the history of the stone lions and the Ancient Traitor; to find out the fate of the mermaids; to figure out what exactly the “porous” nature of mystical Venice entails and what impact it might have.
Meyer has set the stage for a fascinating series, but in order for it to rise above mere interesting he will have to deliver a deeper story than what has been introduced so far. The Venice of the Water Mirror is a world the reader wants to know more about and its inhabitants are characters that we want to understand better. There are a lot of threads that will need to be tied together in oder to produce a satisfying whole.
Nevertheless, The Water Mirror has certainly captured my attention and I look forward to reading the future books in the series as they are released.