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A Shadow On The Glass
Ian Irvine
Warner Books/Aspect, 640 pages

A Shadow On The Glass
Ian Irvine
Ian Irvine was born in Bathurst, Australia in 1950. He studied geology at the University of Sydney and received a Ph.D. in marine science, specialising in pollution. In the early 80s he led several expeditions to Sumatra, which gave him many ideas for his books. In 1986, he set up a consulting firm carrying out environmental work for clients throughout Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. He lives with his family in the mountains of northern New South Wales.

Ian Irvine Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Off on another high fantasy adventure!  Perils and trials abound, and dark forces gather, waiting.  But Australian author Ian Irvine has been wise enough not to invest his heroes and heroines with god-like or idealized qualities, and magic, while powerful, is more involved with the mastery of the mind, illusion and compulsion than fireballs or earth shattering quakes.  This debut novel, the first of a four part series entitled The View from the Mirror, therefore starts with some promise, boding not to become just another rehash of Tolkien, Eddings or Brooks: fair damsels in distress, bold warriors and the tales of unknown future kings. 

The first character we meet, Llian, is a student of history, a chronicler and teller of the past, replete will all the passions and insecurities one would expect from one about to graduate from the shelter of school in order to make his way out into a larger world of which, beyond his study of its past, he truly knows little about.  A brilliant academic, he nonetheless is the fool when it comes to any common sense approach to the world around him (one might argue that this is the usual stereotypical view of the academic, but for the moment we'll let that pass).  Nor are the other characters populating this work the standard cutouts from fantasy: there is a discernable lack of gender bias and all possess, to one degree or another, characteristics in conflict with each other, failings as well as strengths.  Villains within the tale are more menacing or intriguing than a representation of monolithic evil, and receive equal and conflicting characterization.  Romantic episodes are handled deftly and with a light touch. 

Perhaps the author's greatest accomplishment in this debut is in the evolving creation of his world.  Neither a mere image of medieval Europe, a borrowing from the realm of faerie, nor an obvious mirroring of some third world culture meant to delight the Western reader in its imitation of the exotic, in many respects the author has developed a world largely his own, in which humans are the oldest race, along with remnants left of three alien and uninvited cultures, the Charon, the Aachan and the Faellem.  The events of the present and the future of all are rapidly becoming shaped by a murder that took place far in the past, so long ago that the participants are either dead or can no longer recall what exactly took place.  Evidence exists that the truth has been intentionally hidden, though for reasons that remain unclear, and for motives differing for each race involved.  Further, the enigma is complicated by two lost artifacts, one a flute, the other a mirror recently rediscovered, whose properties and role within the mystery remain concealed.  Regardless, it is an object sought by many, for reasons just as varied and unrevealed, except that all are willing to kill or betray to obtain it.  A conflict is brewing, between former friends and enemies, that threatens to overtake at least one world, maybe more.

Obviously this is a tale at once ambitious and complex in scope, requiring tight plotting and storytelling skills in order to be successful.  Unfortunately, this work possesses some of the flaws and stumbles one might expect from a debut novel and first-time author, regardless of the fact that ten years spent in the writing of this four-part series.  For all its strengths, the narrative flow is uneven, shifting at times awkwardly in time and place, with characters' emotional responses to events or one another occasionally as variable as the weather.  While there are obvious examples that can be observed in human behavior -- moodiness, manic-depression -- within the context of a written story, it is helpful to provide at least a hint as to the cause of a mood swing, which is as often as not absent here.  Also revelations and events occur all too frequently with convenient serendipity, while other episodes, such as Karan's recurring dementia and recovery remaining vaguely explained and unclear.  The use of narrative flashbacks to provide historical background is only partly successful, especially when reviewed through the present tense, seeming at times interjected and contrived, and the brief, odd authorial intrusion only further and unnecessarily interrupts the narrative without adding any real benefit or contribution overall.  And, in Chapter 27, a boat that is pushed off to float and disappear down a river, only to reappear a page or two later along the shore exactly from where it had launched, is a careless mistake in action and setting that should have readily been corrected in proofs and editing.  Finally, Faelamor's Story, in Chapter 31, rushes and summarily deals with too many significant events not to undermine the credibility of the story that has preceded.

But the real failing of this narrative arrives at the end.  After having built toward an expectant conclusion, the book instead halts abruptly and in confusion, a rapid denouement of events that leaves the reader uncertain of what has actually taken place, and without any real sense of resolution.  While I assume the author intended this handling as a means to build suspense for the next novel in the series, taking the notion of a cliffhanger to its extreme conclusion, even accepting the use of this device, the final chapter fails to deliver, ending on a turn of events that demands immediate continuance, and that I found exemplifying the most dissatisfactory ending I have encountered in recent memory.  Only an inbred respect for books stalled me from hurling it away in disgust.  This is the type of ending that should never have been allowed past the editors, and I believe just as likely to prevent further reading of the series as to promote it.  Personally, I feel both the author and the publisher owe more respect to the reader than this baldly manipulative and deficient attempt to drive the reader on through the series.

That said, will I continue into the next book?  There are enough positive qualities in the storytelling overall, despite the infuriating failure at the end and the work's other flaws, to recommend my reading the second installment in expectation that the author will improve upon his tale.  There was an impression throughout this book of a story evolving, both in terms of the storytelling and the quality of writing.  Additionally, word has it that with the second book, Tower on the Rift, the author begins to incorporate ecological themes largely absent in the first book, which offers the potential for a depth and seriousness of intention not all that common to fantasy.  We shall see.  But for the moment, promotional comparisons to Robert Jordan or J.V. Jones are inapt, this story so far lacking the tight narrative flow and plotting found in those authors' work.  Further, despite my criticisms, should you decide to venture into this series, I would strongly suggest that you wait until the publication of the second book, due out in January, lest you experience the disappointment and ire I encountered in finishing this installment.  For the moment, any recommendation on my part must remain qualified, with a fuller assessment awaiting the reading of book two.  That work will need to resolve or avoid many of the problems encountered here for any promise in the series to be delivered.

(Reviewer Note: In correspondence with the author, it has been pointed out to me that the passage in Chapter 27, in which I refer above to a boat being pushed off into the water, is actually in reference to a pack, and that I have misapprehended the action taking place in this section of the story. Upon a close rereading this passage, I find that I have indeed misinterpreted, at least grammatically, the action taking place here, despite earlier examinations, and in part due to a confusion as to the passage's intended subject. I apologize to the author for this, and ask that readers of this review disregard my comments concerning this particular passage.)

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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