Monday, August 20, 2012

REVIEW: The Universal Mirror / Gwen Perkins

TITLE: The Universal Mirror
AUTHOR: Gwen Perkins
PUBLISHER: Hydra Publications
AVAILABILITY: Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon US (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Barnes & Noble (paperback), Powell's Books (paperback)
APPROXIMATE LENGTH: 178 pages (paperback)

Recommended for fans of medieval fantasies like the British TV series Merlin and the Game of Thrones books.

Fantasy—Sword and Sorcery

The Universal Mirror takes place on the fictional island of Cercia in a world of magic and noblemen. Familiar territory for fans of European-style medieval fantasies like the Game of Thrones series. The Universal Mirror is focused on a small group of characters and their personal battles within their magical world rather than the end-of-the-world type conflicts of epic heroic fantasies. With its depictions of class systems and old-fashioned dialogue, this book sometimes reads like historical fiction.

The Universal Mirror is the first book in the Artifacts of Empire series. Although the ending is open-ended enough to invite sequels, it does not leave the reader with a cliffhanger.

The Universal Mirror isn’t the fast-paced page-turner type, but it’s nevertheless engaging. Perkins sets up the book’s universe and the characters’ backgrounds while advancing the plot bit by bit—until the last third or so, when everything starts unraveling.

Third person. The book seems to switch between a more omniscient point of view and a closer, limited third. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of the two main characters, Quentin and Asahel, and only one characters’ internal thoughts are shown at a time.

On the island of Cercia, magicians are forbidden to leave and bound by strict laws called the Heresies. No magician is to practice magic on a human being, living or dead. But that doesn’t stop Quentin, a young and arrogant nobleman, from secretly engaging the services of a grave robber so he can hone his supernatural craft. His best friend, a good-hearted man of a lower class called Asahel, reluctantly aides him in his efforts, knowing that if they are caught, they will be executed.

Both Quentin and Asahel could be considered the protagonist of The Universal Mirror, which switches between their perspectives chapter by chapter. Quentin’s motivations for risking not only his life, but the life of his friend, are noble enough. He believes that magic can be used to heal and wants to practice on corpses, much like a medical student. In his obsession and determination, he often disregards the world around him—taking Asahel for granted, never questioning the origins of the corpses, and more. Asahel, meanwhile, is a genuine and loyal man who finds himself torn between the desire to help Quentin and his own sense of right and wrong.

Perkins’ writing has an old-fashioned lilt to it through its choice of words and its use of epithets (Quentin is often referred to as “the redhead”). The Universal Mirror seems to transition in and out of a more omniscient point of view, in which the reader is watching the story from afar, and a closer third, in which the reader experiences the story through the eyes of Quentin or Asahel. It’s not perfect—some parts feel overwritten and the little red pen in my head itched to scratch out a handful of redundant phrases—but it certainly has its own voice.

The Universal Mirror is the kind of book that allows the reader to really care about the characters and understand their world. Through dialogues and back stories that are gradually revealed, Perkins meticulously develops her book’s fantastical universe, describing everything from the structure of the society to the characters’ personal backgrounds to how the magic works. Asahel is by far the most sympathetic character, with his kind, somewhat naïve nature. Sometimes he seems a little too nice and dependent on Quentin, although as the book progresses, so does he. Quentin and his wife, Catharine, a cold and snappish woman whose physical beauty is marred by plague scars, are less immediately likable. Catharine often claims that her father bought Quentin for her, since she is of a wealthier family, and appears indifferent to his feelings and actions. Quentin is convinced that she hates him and treats her coolly even though he is secretly devoted to her. Their dynamic is what creates much of the book’s drama. And then there’s Felix, a magician and nobleman like Quentin, whose charming and casual nature hide his unpredictable intentions.

Many contemporary books, catering to an impatient audience, drop their readers in the middle of the story and make a mad sprint for the end, sprinkling the plot with a quick dash of details that are barely glimpsed. Like watching a countryside zip by out the window of a train, you get the idea of the world you’re in but not much more. In The Universal Mirror, Perkins throws this notion out the window. She takes her time to create the universe her story takes place in, describing the setting in intricate detail and showing scenes between the characters that may not advance the plot but give the reader a better sense of who they are. The book can feel a little slow, and the plot doesn’t really take off until the second half. But by the time it does, one is so familiar with the universe and invested in the people that the ultimate conflict holds greater meaning and carries more suspense than it would have without the set-up. I was, I confess, a bit impatient with the opening, but then I found myself unexpectedly moved and unable to put the book down.

There are a handful of small errors, but nothing distracting.

This book is pretty G-rated. There is some fantasy-style violence (magical duels, swords, and the like), but nothing graphic or gruesome.

Gwen Perkins grew up in small towns across the Pacific Northwest and currently lives in Tacoma, Washington with her partner, Laura, and their three children. Her hobbies include wandering beaches, baking pies and lampworking, or creating glass beads. She is the marketing director of Hydra Publications, a small press focused on speculative fiction.

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RELATED: An Interview with Gwen Perkins



  1. Thanks for a well thought out review. I look forward to reading other reviews in the future.