The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier
Published: Tor, 2007
Series: Book 1 of the Bridei Chronicles
“Bridei is a young nobleman, a fosterling of one of the most powerful druids in the land, Broichan. All of Bridei's memories are of this dark and mysterious man who seems to be training him for a special purpose he will not divulge.
But, everything changes when on one bitter Midwinter Eve Bridei discovers a child on their doorstep—a child abandoned by the fairie folk. In order to avoid the bad luck that seems to come with fairie folk, all counsel the babe's death. But, Bridei follows his instinct and, heedless of the danger, fights to save the child. Broichan, though wary, relents.
As Bridei comes to manhood, and the foundling Tuala blossoms into a beautiful young woman, he begins to feel things he didn't know were possible. Broichan sees this and feels only danger, for Tuala could be a key part in Bridei's future…or could spell his doom. “ ~barnesandnoble.com
I’m reading The Dark Mirror as a part of the 2010 Women in Fantasy Book Club hosted over at the blog ‘Jawas Read, too!’.
The Dark Mirror is a historical fantasy about the life of Bridei I, a member of the civilization of the Picts in the late 500s. Marillier’s take on the Picts is based on historical fact, imagination, and educated guesswork. I enjoyed the descriptions of the geography and beauty of ancient Scotland (the area where the Picts lived), and it seemed that a lot of research went into shaping the civilization into a rich setting for the story.
While the environment was definitely a strong point of the novel, I felt that the characterization of the protagonists was one of the weaknesses. The main characters, Tuala and Bridei, are almost entirely perfect. Due to Bridei’s carefully isolated upbringing, he’s more highly educated and skilled than most anyone else in the kingdom. Despite this, he’s humble, and is careful not to hurt the pride of the older, more experienced men that he outclasses. I had thought that his isolation in childhood might give him problems integrating socially, but his overwhelming natural charisma takes care of that possible problem. His ‘flaws’, as stated in the novel, involve being too noble, thinking too much about things, and being too compassionate. Tuala is beautiful and intelligent. Thanks to Bridei, she is more highly educated than almost any other Pict woman, and she is naturally better at magic than all of the humans. She is also endlessly humble and kind, despite any hostility she encounters. I didn’t dislike either of the characters—there’s not much about them to dislike—but I had a hard time really connecting with such faultless people.
Their story is also a little too predictable and conventional for my taste, and it moves at a glacial pace. Tuala and Bridei are both specially chosen for some great destiny. They are also star-crossed lovers, since Tuala is one of the hated Good Folk. Most of the major obstacles to their love arise from their self-effacing tendencies and their inability to adequately communicate. The romance also seems to embrace the idea that love makes people lose their ability to reason. The book would have been much shorter if either Bridei or Tuala used their carefully honed intellects when thinking about the other’s motivations. The use of these and other generic romance plot devices made their love story feel a little too obvious and familiar to me.
I also was not particularly drawn to the non-romantic story, which was about Priteni (the Pict civilization) politics, and the protection and unification of the realm. I had some serious personal issues with the aggressively intolerant attitudes of Bridei’s countrymen, in addition to their extreme “My Country, Right or Wrong” nationalism. My ideological opposition to the society undercut my ability to be concerned about its continued welfare. I would have liked to see some examination of the common prejudices, and perhaps see some people acknowledge their obvious invalidity. Given that one of the hated Gaels is a main character in the next book of the series, I’m guessing that this might be still to come.
Though I was not particularly interested in the main plot of the novel, I was drawn to the stories of the side characters. To me, the most fascinating character was Ferada, the sister of one of Bridei’s friends. Her lively intelligence led directly to a kind of defensive bitterness. She was well aware of the limited role of women in their society, and she was constantly reminded of her own powerlessness. I was highly interested in her struggle to maintain her personal integrity, but disappointed that so little time was dedicated to her. Other interesting characters included Ana, a royal hostage from another land, and Faolan, a Gaelic bodyguard. I believe that these characters come more into the spotlight in the subsequent books of the series.
My Rating: 2.5/5
I enjoyed the historical aspects of The Dark Mirror, and Marillier’s descriptions of the ancient Pict civilization. However, I found the main characters, Tuala and Bridei, far too perfect to be truly interesting. The plot seemed very unnecessarily slowly paced, given the predictability of the romance and their eventual destiny. Some of the minor characters seemed to have much more interesting stories and personalities, but they were not given enough of the focus to become fully developed. There were definitely things to enjoy in The Dark Mirror, but they were not enough to make me want to continue with the series.