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DNF: ‘The Universal Mirror’ by Gwen Perkins

This book and I got off on the wrong foot right from the start. The first line is: “Asahel could feel the heat of the lantern perilously close to his face as he worked…” Two lines on, there’s a reference to ‘them’, although no one else has been mentioned. Another line, and suddenly we’re in Quentin’s point of view, with this gloriously muddled sentence: “The lantern rocked again as Quentin tried to match him, swaying on the branch on which they’d propped it as Quentin leaned into the dirt, his strength less than the other man’s, borne as it was by a lean frame, tall though it was.”

So for me this was a difficult book to get into. Not because it was particularly complicated in terms of plot or ideas or characterisation, which I don’t mind at all. I do object, however, to having to reread sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs just to work out who is talking, which is the tall one or the stocky one and what either one of them is actually doing. And I couldn’t understand Quentin’s conversation with his wife at all. Undercurrents and mysteries are wonderful, but not when it leaves the reader in a total fog. Well, maybe it’s just me in a total fog, who knows.

What’s so distressing about all this is that there’s a great story buried under this tricky prose. Asahel and Quentin are two friends who are magicians in a land which constrains tightly what they can do with their powers. I wanted to know more about the magic, more about their history and why exactly they were trying to dig up a body. I was curious, too, about Quentin’s wife, and what is going on with their relationship. There’s an interesting setting behind the story, which seemed well thought out. I really wanted to like this book, it should have been just my cup of tea, and yet I was distracted on every page, in every paragraph by something jarring. The wrong word used. A badly constructed sentence. Over-dramatic description. The Punctuation Police had enough evidence to make an arrest within a few pages. And the tragedy is that this isn’t a self-published work, it’s been (presumably) vetted and edited and polished by the professionals at Hydra Publications. Frankly, they are doing their authors a grave disservice if they let through editing of this poor standard.

There are lots of positive reviews of this, so clearly most people really enjoyed it and I’ll put my adverse reaction down to my overly nit-picky nature. I’m fairly tolerant of the odd typo here and there, but this wasn’t the usual run of misspellings. For me, there were just too many sentences where a character was clearly upset, but I couldn’t work out why. Or sometimes which character it was, even. Or who was doing what to whom. It may well be a failing in me, but I found it a constant struggle to read (and yes, entirely my fault for not checking that it suited me before I bought it – my bad). If this sort of thing doesn’t bother you, you may well find the book an agreeable and entertaining read, as many others seem to. Sadly, I only got through 20% of it before I jumped ship. One star for a DNF.


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