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Review of the Day: The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long

MagicMirrorThe Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King, and a Pickpocket Squirrel
By Susan Hill Long
Knopf (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-553-51134-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves May 10th

What do you want from a fairy tale? Magic? Romance? Derring-do? Despicable villainy? Academics and scholars have puzzled and puzzed until their puzzlers were sore over what it is about the European fairy tale genre that so enthralls us. Recently fairy tale lovers have seen the entertainment industry discover that fairy tales are still a primo source of capital. On the book side of things, I’ve seen a distinct uptick in retellings of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and more in the last five years. Classic fairy tales have it easy. It’s the newbies that have a hard time going. How do you get a foothold in a genre that’s been in existence for centuries? In The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long, the author decides to simplify. Merely take the elements that suit the story best (highway robbers, princesses, and just a smidgen of magic) and then weave in some surprisingly stellar writing. The result is fairy tale fare that reminds one of nothing so much as the best of Gail Carson Levine. Funny, friendly, witty and sly, this makes for perfect bedtime reading.

Margaret (or Maggot, depending on who’s talking about her) should technically be grateful for her life. Though she sports a lame foot (an “accident of birth” she’s been told) and is an orphan, she has a roof over her head, food in her belly, and aside from avoiding Thomas, the local bully, not too much trouble in life. But of course she’s desperately lonely, and that’s a problem that’s hard to cure. When she makes the acquaintance of a man with a wooden leg, she receives in a trade a mirror capable of showing anyone their heart’s desire. But what she sees when she peers into it is a strange wild-eyed man she’s never laid eyes on before. When Minka, the woman who cares for Margaret, decides to marry her off, our heroine decides that leg or no leg she is not going to have her life decided for her. And in the course of her adventures she’ll little suspect there are royal mix-ups, a king with little in the way of fatherly feelings, a boy with a bagpipe, and a light-fingered squirrel in her very near future.

Is anyone going to challenge me when I say that comparing a book, any book, to The Princess Bride is never a good idea? The Princess Bride inspires a loving fandom that jealously guards its unique storytelling. Still, there are many familiar tropes in that book/film. A princess, a pirate, giants, swordplay, you name it. When writing a new fairy tale you Harry Potter it. You take those familiar elements and weave them into something new. So when Ms. Long wrote The Magic Mirror she did exactly the same thing. Additionally, by splitting her narrative into an increasingly large cast of characters, she gives it a distinctly Princess Bride-like feel. It has humor and fights and baddies in all the same ways. When Kirkus reviewed this book they said that it was predictable and unbelievable (because of the coincidences in the plot). I’d counter that there’s nothing any more predictable or unbelievable here than you’d find in any modern fairy tale, be it Ella Enchanted or Frozen, and just as much joy.

In this particular case it’s Long’s descriptions and characters that stay with a reader long after the book has been put down. Even the foulest villain has an emotional weak spot, and characters that are set up to seem like baddies at the beginning (like Minka) turn out to be pretty soft in the end. Plus you really root for these characters. Some authors think it necessary to drown their villains in a thick sauce of sadism so that when the heroes triumph it’s an even keener victory. But when writing books for 9-12 year olds there’s no need to pile on the bloodshed. In the right writers’ hands, as long as the antagonist is preventing the heroes from their happy ending, that’s all you really need to do to keep the plot moving at a sharp clip. I liked the people I met in this book, but the descriptions were probably my favorite aspect of the novel. Lines like, “Her voice climbed up the sentence like a ladder, and quavered at the top,” make me happy. Ditto wisdoms like “It’s all in the angle of the squint.” Or a description of a cathedral’s shadows where a character “shuffled away from the creeping dark so that she might escape God’s notice.”

I did experience a palpable sense of relief that it was written today, though. Since Margaret has a physical disability (a foot and leg injured long ago that were never set correctly) there is a brief suggestion at one point that there might be a magical remedy to her problem. I was reminded of a similar middle grade novel Handbook for Dragon Slayers which also starred a girl with an injured limb. In that book a cure for her disability is bandied about and ultimately rejected in an excellent manner. Indeed, the book went on to win a Schneider Family Book Award given annually to books that embody, “an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Reading The Magic Mirror I had the very clear sense that if this book had been written in the past an easy cure for Margaret’s leg would have been part of the story’s happy ending and that would be that. These days such endings are mildly insulting answers to what, in truth, are very real problems. Happily The Magic Mirror does not fall into such a trap (though sadly the heroine does have some unfortunate thoughts about a successful man with a hunch on his back that did not gel well with the book’s otherwise positive embrace of disability).

As it happens, I did find one particular aspect of the book problematic. This is Ms. Long’s second novel so while the bones of this story are strong there are aspects to the writing that will need a bit of strengthening in the future. Specifically, the exposition. Now the art of exposition is learned, not born. Filling the reader in on a hitherto unknown back-story is no easy task. At best, back-story is woven into the dialogue so naturally the reader is hardly aware that they’re learning about what’s come before. Clunky back-story, in contrast, places huge chunks of it en masse in the same general vicinity of the novel. Alas, near the end of The Magic Mirror the author has set herself up to reveal not just the back-story of our heroine, but of at least three to four other people as well. The result is ultimately somewhat confusing, with new characters popping up (a midwife, a thief’s wife) to fill in the details out of the blue. Without a character guide (which would, admittedly, give away some of the plot) there is little to help kids distinguish between Petra vs. Minka vs. Margaret.

For all that there is a magic mirror in the story the book is pretty devoid of magical activities. You won’t find dragons or wizards or much of anything out of this world here, with the sole exception of the mirror itself. It’s almost a pity that it’s in the title since you could probably hand this title to kids that only like realism (and they do indeed exist) and they’d get just as much out of it as the most ravenous fantasy fan. While it’s not a perfect novel, it is a ripping good yarn that keeps you enthralled from page one onward. Will you see where it’s going? Maybe. But you’ll enjoy the sights along the way. Fine fantastical stuff.

For ages 9-12.

On shelves May 10th.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.