Kai Meyer,
The Water Mirror
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

The Venice of The Water Mirror is a city of canals and masks -- but there any resemblance to the Venice of our world ends. For one thing, in our protagonist Merle's world, there are mermaids in the canals: lovely, dark-eyed, pale-skinned creatures with the gaping, ear-to-ear jaws of fish. Magic is the stuff of everyday life, from the stone lions that serve the city's counselors to Merle's own master, a magic mirror maker. And Merle, orphan though she may be, possesses a mysterious mirror whose silvery surface contains dark, unfathomably deep and far from empty waters.

But this Venice of wonders and marvels is also a world in decay, crumbling under a three-decades-long siege by the Egyptians, who have long since conquered the rest of the world with their undead troops. Only an enigmatic entity called the Flowing Queen prevents Venice's fall, and it is slowly becoming evident that the Flowing Queen herself is in desperate need of rescue.

Enter our teenaged heroes. Merle and her fellow orphan, blind Junipa, don't know what to expect when they are apprenticed to Arcimboldo, magic mirror maker, but it is clear that theirs will be no ordinary apprenticeship. The first of many enigmas confronts them at the door: a housekeeper named Eft who hides her face behind a mask. No less secretive than she, Arcimboldo turns out to be an odd cross between a benevolent grandfather, a mad inventor and an alchemist, who replaces Junipa's blind eyes with flat silver mirrors that allow her to see with more than human vision. In Arcimboldo's studio, the two girls come across a number of mysteries having to do with mirrors, phantoms, mermaids and themselves. But nothing really happens until Merle and Serafin, a former master thief and rival apprentice, uncover a plot that threatens all of Venice. And then things that Merle had thought only legend and more or less irrelevant to her daily existence -- from the Flowing Queen to the Ancient Traitor of the city and Hell itself -- start making life very complicated and interesting.

Unfortunately, the very complicated and interesting part of Merle's story doesn't kick in until over halfway through the book, and neither it nor anything that was taking place earlier is resolved by the end. Pacing is a major problem in The Water Mirror; most of the exposition about the ongoing Egyptian siege, unhelpfully enough, takes place in the last 10 pages. Overall, the book feels more like the first part of a much longer book than a complete entry in a series, and at a mere 250 pages, everything feels a bit sketchy. Merle is a believable 14-year-old, but she remains virtually indistinguishable from a host of other resourceful, spunky and determined fantasy heroines, and everyone else is even less developed. Venice itself, whether that of Arcimboldo's studio or the labyrinthine canals, never feels quite solid enough to be a real world, which in turn makes it difficult to suspend disbelief about some of the more extravagant details. (The physicality of flying stone lions who nonetheless bleed and breed -- in different stones no less -- is particularly hard to swallow, even for a fantasy.)

At the same time, it is primarily Kai Meyer's eye for startling, disturbing images and details that sets The Water Mirror apart from other such fantasies and makes it worth reading: the half beautiful, half grotesque mermaids, the alternate city in the reflections of the canal waters, the hand that reaches up to touch Merle's through her mirror, the tangibility of a Hell that not only exists outside the mind but also sends sulfurous envoys, the moral complexity of even "good" guys like Arcimboldo, the Flowing Queen and the Venetians whom Merle and Serafin are trying so desperately to save.

Frustrating though they can be, the many unresolved, unexplained details are also compelling reason to read on in hopes of seeing all these threads knit together into a grand denouement further on in the series.

Flawed though it is, The Water Mirror nonetheless has an edgy innovativeness absent in many recent entries in the increasingly flooded genre of YA fantasy. Fans of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix and Chris Wooding will probably appreciate the darkness of Merle's world, though the setting may also appeal to those first exposed to brighter fictional versions of Venice in Cornelia Funke and Mary Hoffman's fantasies. The complex and somewhat laborious setup holds a great deal of potential that its sequels may -- and hopefully will -- fulfill.

by Jennifer Mo
17 June 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.