Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Through a Mirror, Darkly

In the opening scene of Reckless, the first volume in Cornelia Funke’s new series, we are introduced to Jacob Reckless whose father has disappeared. Jacob, feeling abandoned and angry, searches his father’s room for clues as to what might have happened to him. What he finds instead is a mirror which serves as a portal to another world. As soon as crosses into this world, he is attacked by a grotesque spider like being. He barely escapes and finds his younger brother, Will, afraid, searching for him back in his own world.

The story then jumps ahead twelve years. Jacob, not deterred by the violence he met in the Mirror world has, over the years, spent more and more time there. The Mirrorworld is a place full of dangerous and enticing magic. In his time behind the mirror Jacob has become a successful, even famous, hunter of magical treasures and, like his father before him, has largely abandoned his family in his home world, forever making excuses for his long absences. But one mistake has allowed his brother to follow him through the mirror and tragedy has struck. A race of stone-skinned people called Goyl, at war with various human nations, has attacked the Reckless brothers and, because of the curse of a dark fairy that the Goyl use as a weapon of war, Will is slowly growing stone skin himself, turning into one of the creatures out to destroy the Mirrorworld’s humans. Jacob is certain he can find a cure for his brother, but the skin is changing quickly and with it Will is losing his human mind and soul.

The Mirrorworld that Funke creates is one of the most richly imagined fantasty worlds I’ve come across in a long time. Funke never misses an opportunity to elaborate on some detail of her invented world--the way Goyl distinguish themselves by the type of stone their skin resembles, the way fairies employ swarming moths in the execution of their terrible magic, the way modern technology (trains, guns, flashlights) slowly creeps into the magical world. Funke’s tale was inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, but she completely avoids sugar coating the dark stories here. On the contrary, they are reimagined even more darkly than the originals, any happily-ever-afters stripped clean away. At one point Jacob’s band of adventures comes upon the body of Sleeping Beauty, dead. Her prince never arrived. She was never awoken from her sleep-like stasis and eventually just slept to death. The fairies of this story are not cute, Tinkerbell-inspired pixies, but Grimm’s fairies—beautiful, powerful, needy and cruel.

You’ll find Reckless shelved with the upper middle-grade fantasies, but really, the book could be equally comfortable in any fantasy section, including adult. The characters are not children (not after the prologue anyway) and while there’s no explicit sexual content, the pages are taut with sexual tension throughout. There’s no limit on the swashbuckling, gun fighting and head bashing violence either, though it all seems in the spirit of the story’s adventure, never gratuitous.

The story evokes a similar Grimm’s like feeling of alienation as well, largely due to what it leaves out. There’s no traipsing back and forth between worlds here, and no pages of prose wasted on characters gazing about in wonder at what they’ve found. They, like the characters of the fairy tales, don’t stop to heed warnings, their curiosity and human need drive heedlessly forward. For some readers this quality might make story a frustrating read. For me it only made it more intriguing and I eagerly await the next installment.

Cross-posted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp


Okie said...

This sounds compelling. I keep intending to pick up some Funke and give it a try....maybe this will be the one to grab.

Thanks for a great review.

mr chompchomp said...

Thanks for the comment. The Inkheart series is very good as well and similar in the breadth and depth of the invented world. I have not yet read Funke's other books but they are on my list.

Anonymous said...

I like how Reckless recalls the more traditional tales of Grimm's time. it doesn't read like she's revisiting or revising the fairy tale, she's telling one.

I love her work, am curious what she does with the rest of this series.


mr chompchomp said...

Well put, contemplatrix.