Sean Stewart,
(Ace, 1998)

Sean Stewart's Mockingbird is laced with magic and metaphor, but it is first and foremost a painful and funny novel about the closely intertwined relationship between a mother and her daughters.

When Toni Beauchamp buried her mother, she was certain that she was burying her past as well. Life with Elena Beauchamp was not easy -- she could work magic but at the expense of being mounted by one of "Riders," gods who took complete control of her body. There was the stern, implacable Widow; the grim hell-and-brimstone Preacher; the Mockingbird who copies those around her; Sugar, whose only thoughts are for pleasure; nasty cruel clown Pierrot; and cool, calculating Mr. Copper. Elena kept representations of her gods in a special chifforobe, dolls which were not for play time. There was also the Lost Little Girl who wound her way in and out of Elena's stories -- a child who was looking for her home.

Toni is certain that they are finished with the Riders, but her sister Candy tricks her into drinking Elena's "Mockingbird Cordial" which leaves Toni open and vulnerable to the gods. For Toni -- plain, practical, responsible actuary Toni -- has inherited her mother's gift for magic, and as Elena's tombstone says, "There are some gifts which cannot be refused." Toni finds that her mother's legacy is far more intricate than she realized and that she is the one to finish Elena's work. In the process, she discovers the truth about her mother and about herself.

Stewart has written a wry, witty and wise tale about unconditional love and acceptance, and his characterizations are marvelous. Toni is a heroine grimly determined to hang on to her unlovable self, as if by doing so she will protect herself from the rest of the world. She is pessimistic, angry and resentful at being the caretaker for her mother and her flighty lovely younger sister while growing, but at the same time, her strength and her determination shine through. Her transformation from a stolid prickly woman trying to bludgeon her world into shape to a woman who accepts her talents and gifts and learns how to use them is subtle and believable.

Overall, the book is beautifully written. Stewart's descriptions of Houston, the book's setting, come as alive as his characters, and his imagery is deft and vivid. The magical elements accent the tale gracefully: at its heart is the never-ending dance of mothers and daughters. Mockingbird will have appeal whether you are either, both or neither.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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