Kai Meyer,
Dark Reflections #2: The Stone Light
(Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Although one of the more original YA fantasy writers to emerge in the past few years, German author Kai Meyer is proving to be a mixed bag, and only so much can be blamed upon translation. Thus far, the Dark Reflections Trilogy has featured startlingly innovative ideas, action galore and everything a fantasy should have -- except decent characterization and emotional resonance.

But don't let that stop you if you're in the mood for a heady adventure. Situated partly in Hell and partly in a decaying alternate Venice, The Stone Light is paced to keep even reluctant readers flipping pages. It opens shortly after the events of The Water Mirror: teenaged heroine Merle (predictably spunky, stubborn and of mysterious parentage) is fleeing besieged Venice on the back of a flying stone lion. With -- or more accurately, within -- Merle is the enigmatic guardian spirit of Venice, the Flowing Queen. Together, the three are speeding towards Hell to seek its aid against the undead Egyptian forces, in one of those it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time decisions. The Hell of Merle's world may be a geographical location at the center of the Earth rather than a wispy theological notion, but its denizens, though stranger, are no friendlier. And the misshapen Lilim are only the beginning of the strange and sinister things that await Merle in Hell.

Meanwhile, bereft of the Flowing Queen's protection, Venice falls to the Egyptians through their mummy magic and powerful priests. Merle's friend Seraphin, the youngest person ever to be made a member of the Thieves' Guild, is suddenly very busy fending off mummies, forging unlikely alliances and discovering long-submerged secrets about Venice that in a more perfect world would have remained secrets.

The Stone Light suffers from being a middle book, caught between the novelty of the first and the resolution of the last. Some of the most interesting aspects of the first book, like the presence within Merle's magical water mirror and the Flowing Queen's identity, are virtually ignored. A great deal happens throughout the book; almost nothing is resolved. Meyer has set himself up for a lot of tying up and explaining in the third book, but leaves little doubt that he will pull the tangled plot off with panache.

Whether the last book will dig into the ideas of morality, magic and mythology that are tantalisingly touched upon in the first two is less certain, and at this point, it is becoming unlikely that Meyer's characters and relationships will ever acquire some dimensionality.

For all its readability, The Stone Light does little to develop its characters beyond common fantasy stereotypes. The superfluous and clumsily handled romance between Merle and Seraphin is about as profound as a Hallmark card, especially considering the briefness of their acquaintance in the first book and complete failure to interact in the second. The only relationship that really works is the half uneasy, half affectionate one between the Flowing Queen and her reluctant host, and even that is often compromised in favour of more action.

Treat this book like a decent summer blockbuster film. No pirates involved (though if you have a pirate fix to feed, you can always try Meyer's Pirate Curse), but lots of colourful scenery, adrenaline rushes, splashy special effects, subhuman nasties and the occasional intelligent thought or two. An entertaining, if slightly guilty, pleasure read for fans of Garth Nix and Philip Pullman.

by Jennifer Mo
14 April 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.