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Mirror Image
by Michael Scott and Melanie Ruth Rose
Tor, $25.99, 352pp
Published: August 2016

I wasn't sure what to expect from 'Mirror Image', given that the concept is hardly new and Michael Scott is almost suspiciously prolific. The author blurb claims over a hundred novels for him, many of which turn out to be YA or pseudonymous romance novels. However, I found that it did its job rather well, reminding in many ways of Graham Masterton, merely more controlled and less outrageous.

Masterton's horror career went through phases and one of them involved a series of otherwise unrelated books written around artifacts which bring occult evil into the modern day; one of those had to do with a mirror and was therefore unimaginatively titled 'Mirror'. This novel, with its only slightly more imaginative title, is no 'remake' but it does follow a very similar path. What it doesn't do is attempt an additional tie-in to children's literature, one more of Masterton's themes, which, in his instance, involved 'Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass'.

Michael Scott and Melanie Ruth Rose introduce us to their mirror in London, as Jonathan Frazer, an American antiques dealer, finds himself surprised by a 'once in a lifetime bargain'. He coughs up about $3,500 to purchase an antique mirror, seven feet by four, containing Venetian glass, and ship it back to his office in the States; his resident expert, Tony Farren, believes it to be worth $20,000 or more. Frazer is an immediately happy camper but happiness is not a feeling that remains for long; this book moves quickly into darker territory, not only because it's a horror novel but because the happy moments are all cheats. It's a pessimistic book, right down to its appropriate, if unsurprising, end.

I'm sure you'll be shocked to discover that the mirror soon starts claiming victims. Farren is the first of them to go, crushed to death under its considerable weight. Another of Frazer's assistants comes next, Diane Williams, in what appears to the police to be a clear suicide. This is one of the benefits of the 'ancient evil artifact' genre; whatever the artifact, we can happily watch it wreak its time-honoured havoc, as we read chapter upon chapter, but nobody in the story is ever going to believe a word of it. Usually the artifact is wary of being caught before its power grows to the crucial point and this one is no exception, but it slips up notably on a few occasions.

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to discover that... well, no, let’s nip that one in the bud before I overdo it. Frankly you’re not going to be shocked to discover anything in this book, at least in the present day, as the progression is utterly as expected. Whenever a man buys an artifact with an ancient secret, it promptly starts to kill people or influence them into killing people; in doing so, it builds its power and this upward spiral of madness and magic continues until some heroic soul saves the day by destroying it, usually at the point at which it’s both most vulnerable and closest to winning. This book is no exception.

The only aspects that keep us guessing tie to history and the police.

The ancient origin of this mirror is a particularly neat one and the being trying to escape is not the usual demon. I won’t tell you who it is, because the authors keep that a secret until thirty pages from the end and I’m hardly going to spoil a discovery this cool. The collector in me is all tingly, however, about a host of details that are highlighted during that big reveal; it’s just not who but what and how.

What I will tell you is that the story alternates between the present, with Jonathan Frazer being affected by the mirror in modern day San Francisco, and the past of Elizabethan England, with the real life characters of John Dee and Edward Kelley caught up in this fiction. Scott has used Dee before, in at least three novels before he made him the antagonist in his ‘Nicholas Flamel’ series of YA fantasies. Dee is an irresistible character and it can’t be of surprise to anyone that he’s a popular one for writers of horror and fantasy fiction. Kelley is a little less well known but his connections to Dee are fascinating. I found myself absorbed by the chapters that explored them, not to mention the mysterious lady who won’t give her name who assists one and marries the other. I was so absorbed that I often felt wrenched back into succeeding chapters in the present.

Of course, with deaths a plenty, the cops are inevitably brought in. What’s surprising here is that there’s a set path for this angle that Scott and Rose ignore. Usually the lead detective is a fundamental character in the tale that unfolds, but she’s minimised here. I liked Margaret Haaren and felt that she had more potential than was explored. She seems to be a good cop and an insightful detective, but she doesn’t really do much for most of the book because there isn't much that can be done. Her subordinates are skimped over too, showing up only when they can slip up horribly, even if it’s due to the mirror’s corrupting influence.

And so we focus much more on Jonathan Frazer, his daughter Emmanuelle (or Manny) and the only man with the knowledge to stop the mirror and save them. That’s Edmund Talbott, who felt very much like the Mountain in ‘Game of Thrones’. He’s huge and horribly scarred, knowledgeable but either naïve as to what ramifications his actions have or so dedicated to his task that he doesn’t care. He’s very much a villain as we begin, just like Frazer is a hero, but those lines are soon blurred as we learn more about both of them and as the mirror begins to work its evil upon the world at large.

And here’s where I can praise Scott and Rose. The writing here is literate and capable, although not daunting; it only taught me one new word. That’s ‘catamite’, an underage male companion kept in antiquity as a gay lover. However, even though it never zooms along, it never gets bogged down either; it’s a horror novel written at the pace of a ghost story. Sometimes it feels strange that sex and death are so prominent and so prominently tied, as the book feels polite, if not inoffensive. This is no schlocky read, though the intelligence in the writing isn’t really extended to the mostly predictable story.

I liked this novel but it felt inherently transitory even as I was reading it. There are no great insights here and little of real substance, just enjoyable prose that fails to do much else. I doubt there’s much here that I’ll recall even in a month or two and the only bits that will stay with me longer are the ones that I can’t tell you about. Wait for the paperback and read it on the beach. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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