The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg
Well, with The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg, we’re into the second of the Collegia Magica trilogy and the pace is holding up well. For those who like warnings of future events, the final instalment is titled The Daemon Prism and it’s due in 2012. Since we’ve not ended the second on a cliffhanger, I imagine the wait will not be a great strain although I confess my curiosity has been quite seriously piqued.
In the timescale of the trilogy, four years have passed since the trial of Michel de Vernase who was convicted of treason in absentia at the end of The Spirit Lens and we start with the dramatic news of Lianelle’s death. She was the younger daughter of the traitor Michel. With mother confined in a hospital and son Ambrose held in the Spindle, it falls to older daughter Anne to go to the Collegia de Magica de Seravain to gather what information she can. Upon her return to the family estates, she find Portier de Savin-Duplais waiting for her. She’s summoned to Merona to act as maid of honour to the queen. This brings Anne’s reclusive life to a sudden end and forces her out into the world where she must defend her family’s name and her own life in what proves to be a potentially deadly game.
As in The Spirit Lens, we have a mystery played on the stage of a world on the cusp of Enlightenment. Except, full Enlightenment is not going to be achievable — rationality cannot prevail in the face of real evidence of the irrational. Despite coming to court a confirmed sceptic on the question of magic, she’s soon forced to admit that natural laws can be bent in rather unexpected ways. Being of a practical disposition, she suspends judgement, collecting information from all sources open to her. In this, she proves unexpectedly efficient and she’s soon embroiled in the continuing investigations of Portier and Ilario while fighting off the threatening advances of Mage Dante.
Following on from my previous review, I’m pleased to report the context for all this manoeuvring grows more clear. It seems the Blood Wars were fought over control of Ixtador. There were two families. The Montdragons may have created Ixtador by mistake or somehow separated it from its usual place in the “supernatural” order. The Gautieri were jealous and wanted to usurp control. In effect, the families were disputing title to what we might call Limbo, a place where the souls of the dead go. But it’s not clear whether the souls can go on from Ixtador to a Heaven, potentially creating a form of Hell for the accumulation of spirits while they are inside it. More generally, from the moment of its creation, magic seems not to have worked quite as well. It’s as if its existence somehow distorted the usual order of things.
From this, you will understand the primary motivation of those now jockeying for power is literally a matter of life and death. The hope or expectation is that, by breaking down the Veil currently separating the living world from what lies beyond, the natural order will be turned on its head and a new form of existence will be created. With such high stakes, Anne must adapt to a new life in court, protect the Queen and work out exactly caused her sister’s death. For it’s this death that forces the conspirators out into the open slightly earlier than they had planned. This is the chance to identify the Adept and avert all danger to the world.
Most of my reaction to this book is positive. I feel it’s rather better than the first. In part, this is because Carol Berg seems more comfortable writing with a woman’s point of view. With The Spirit Lens so strongly favouring Duplais’ point of view, we were caught up in the mind of a somewhat pedantic and inflexible man who was unwillingly dragged into the first phase of the investigation and had to make the best of it. The same set of circumstances beset Anne in this volume, but although she’s also somewhat introverted, she comes over as entirely more sympathetic. Both prove brave and tough minded, and with Ilario slightly less prominent, it’s Anne whose strengths prove the difference between success and failure.
Now that more of the historical and political context is laid out for us to see, the two volumes taken together have a better focus and the essential mystery of who is doing what to whom and why, can take centre stage. I don’t think anyone will fail to identify the key players. This is not a classic mystery with a large cast of characters being whittled down to a hard core of suspects. As we come into this second volume, we’ve eliminated enough of the options so that a few moments thought allow us to point the finger of accusation with some degree of certainty. With everyone unmasked, this leaves us with an extended ritual as the climax to this phase of the adventure, followed by our heroes finding moments of peace. As a final thought the title to this book is quite pleasingly ambiguous given that mirrors never lie about what they show us about ourselves or those we see in the glass.
All in all, The Soul Mirror is a satisfying read and I look forward to the final instalment, The Daemon Prism, to see how it’s all resolved.