Re-Reading: "Shattered Mirror"
Recently I bought the hardcover version of a book that really started me on this path to authorship: "Shattered Mirror" by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes.
This is not a book I can confidently recommend to people because I was 12-13 when I first read it and it was perfect for me at the time. It has remained one of my favorite books for the nostalgic meaning it has for me and the drive it gave me to become an author. However, that doesn't mean it's a good book. Having years (and a lot of other books) between now and when I last read the book, I decided to give it another go... with critical eyes.
It's not as bad as I thought it might be, but it's also not as good as I remembered. It's a fast-paced book: one that I could have easily chewed through in a couple of hours while waiting in an airport or something. I couldn't identify too many plot holes that couldn't be explained away with: but Sarah (the protagonist) is a teenager and has a teenage thought process. The characters are compelling and deep enough where I feel that they drive the plot without being too complicated. However, the book also relies a lot on a "shared consciousness": knowing the world well enough to be able to imagine the scenes with only a few words in place. It's as if all high schools look the same, or all neighborhoods, or all houses. These places exist in my mind, but I don't think that they exist the same in everyone else who has ever read this novel: I can't even say that it exists the same way as the author herself.
Looking back, I think that's why I had such a hard time breaking some writing habits, and the reason I had such a difficult time reading other novels. To be clear, I'm not blaming the author for her choices. Rather, I'm stressing why the novel compelled me as a young teenager and why I felt I could become an author. The vagueness allowed for me to insert my own familiarity and make sense of the book, and it also gave me a confidence boost that I could write just as well as my favorite author.
Romance novels do something similar, which I've discussed before: having a bland "every woman" as their protagonist. The vague protagonist makes sure that the reader can insert themselves and feel like they're in deep with whoever the romantic interest is. If the protagonist does something good, the reader feels like they did it too. If the protagonist does something stupid... well, it was just the protagonist's fault. This is what Atwater-Rhodes did with setting: when it was a house party, there was little description about the house and I could just assume what it looked like, but when it's a vampire's house and the front room is definitely NOT like the rest of the world, special care is taken to describe it.
It's an interesting choice, and one that most critics would say is a bad one. However, as a young reader this is kind of exactly what I needed to get me started. I couldn't taste and smell and feel the world like I did with books like "The Night Circus", but the world still felt real and compelled me to love reading. I can tell you how quickly and rabidly I devoured the Den of Shadows series after the first time I read "Shattered Mirror". I got library notices about how overdue that book was. Several different times. Then I bought it, and I've pretty much destroyed the paperback. How can I say that the author's choice to write it a certain way was shit, when it obviously meant so much to me?
That said, I also want to discuss the theme (or lack thereof), and why it only accomplishes a fraction of what I believe it could have. From the synopsis on the cover, we are told from the get-go that this is a book about changing perspectives. The protagonist has only ever been taught to see the world as good and evil: black and white. When she starts to see those shades of gray in between, her world unravels and everything becomes more complicated. I absolutely agree that the point of this book is to show how caveated a person's life ends up being, and how we aren't all inherently evil. Even the most brutal vampire in the novel (who ends up destroying several lives and torturing a poor human girl) is shown to love deeply and often.
However, the story is filtered through Sarah's consciousness, even if it is in third-person POV. Thus, the change that happens in her feels less like a fight to overcome her own prejudices and more of a selfish way to protect her friends or her family. She is pressured to destroy her new-found vampire friends because her family is a serious pack of vampire hunters, and there's no tolerance for fraternizing with the enemy... But why Sarah feels compelled to protect them is nebulous. We are told that she kind of likes Christopher, and Nissa is sweet and lovely, but we don't really feel that she feels it. There is so much reservation in her thoughts and her tone that I can't believe her when she argues with her sister about her friendship. I want to, and I definitely feel that her view is shifting, but I don't believe that Sarah means what she says. It's interesting that I didn't pick up on any of that when I was a teenager, but I also didn't understand that there were unreliable narrators either so....
I wish the story had been a little longer to tease out more of Sarah's change. I like the fact that it's kind of a one-sided romance, and that her feelings are complicated toward Nikolas and Kristopher (yes, same Christopher, it just denotes a particular change). However, Sarah's friendly feelings come across as false or at the very least shallow. If there had been a few more complications, the story was longer, perhaps even the care of Christine a little more in depth, I think the themes we were supposed to understand would have been stronger.
This theme - and the action of the protagonist essentially switching sides because of a change in perspective - is not one that is commonly shown in Young Adult books anymore. Typically, YA focuses on a hero/heroine overcoming great odds to save the world, or fight against corruption, or finds themselves during a journey. It's rare that the entire point of a book is to show how wrong your own upbringing can be, and how the world isn't as simple as we were taught. We've led our young people to believe so much in themselves that it may be backfiring on us. That belief in oneself, the strength to do what's right, and the unshakable conviction that our heroes have shown us are wonderful, but we haven't shown how those qualities can also be a detriment when trying to understand a more complex situation. For this reason, I think "Shattered Mirror" is still a gem, even if I think it could have been handled better.
That said, this is ultimately a 3.5 star book. It's easily digestible, lacks a lot of theme and message (though not entirely devoid of it), doesn't focus too much on the romance to be a romantic book, isn't action-oriented but has action sequences, has enough magic and supernatural creatures to be early urban fantasy, has strong and sensitive characters (both male and female), and has good world building as far as how the supernatural world collides with the human one. I was reminded of the message that the book portrays, and because I enjoy themes along those lines, I give it an almost-four star rating. You don't see a lot of YA books that choose to put the protagonist initially on the wrong side of a fight, and showing the journey to understanding.