I can’t believe it has been nearly three years since I read Bronze Gods! It feels like just yesterday I stumbled across the gem of a new fantasy novel in the library and excitedly took it home. Mind you, my memory (or lack thereof) of that first book is more consistent with such an elapsed time. I went into Silver Mirrors with only a vague sense of what happened in Bronze Gods (fortunately, Aguirre summarizes the main points succinctly without too much exposition, something many authors struggle to do). It has taken me far too long to read this book, more because I simply forgot to look for it in my library. It was nice to hang out with Inspectors Celeste Ritsuko and Janus Mikani again as they take on various nefarious happenings in Hy Breasil.
As I commented in my review of Bronze Gods, Aguirre has a great world here. They continue to build on it in this book, with Ritsuko and Mikani leaving Dorstaad to venture north and deal with the fallout from the end of the first book. We get to spend more time with Saskia Braelan, meet some other interesting characters, and learn a little more about the magic that underpins this world. There is also plenty of adventure, combat, and explosions. Indeed, Silver Mirrors feels very much like the “bigger budget” sequel to a movie that was a surprise box office hit: Ritsuko and Mikani, back for a second adventure, get a grander stage and more CGI effects. Like many such sequel movies, this creates new opportunities for storytelling but also brings with it challenges and even drawbacks.
I enjoyed the mystery element of Bronze Gods, and it isn’t as evident here. This is a bit of a strange complaint from me, because normally I’m ready to complain about how much paranormal and urban fantasy fiction is wrapped up in the mystery genre as well. The book starts off hinting that Ritsuko and Mikani might continue pursuing the ur-mystery uncovered in the first novel, and the events do eventually converge in that direction. Most of the book, however, follows a more conventional quest structure for the plot, with the inspectors facing various physical and psychological challenges to have them demonstrate their worthiness as heroic figures.
It almost feels like Silver Mirrors is a bunch of story ideas hastily stitched together: Ritsuko and Mikani pursuing their mystery; pirates raiding shipping; elementals on the loose on remote islands; a megalomaniac governor with evil designs on these elementals, etc. Just when it seems like they are making progress on one story, the novel suddenly says, “Surprise, that’s not actually the main plot after all!” And it’s all very disorienting. Yes, in general it’s good to have multiple layers to one’s plots. But in a book this short and so densely-packed with action sequences, it’s important to make the plots work smoothly together. That doesn’t happen here.
On the other hand, the character development between Ritsuko and Mikani continues apace, in interesting ways. Without delving too far into spoilers, let’s say that I like the way that Aguirre manages their relationship status. It feels very believable without being too contrived. Too many writers throw duos together into romance for no good reason; too many writers take the opposite tack of playing the “will they or won’t they” game forever because they’re worried that putting the characters together will make things “boring”. Aguirre opts for neither approach, and it works here. Along with the development of the minor characters, Ritsuko and Mikani’s ongoing respect for one another’s feelings and skills as they navigate their own emotions is a very compelling aspect of Silver Mirrors.
You know, I knock the story, but this is actually really good fantasy. Its magic is intriguing without dominating everything. It has great characters, both main and secondary. And it has a nice setting. I called the first book “steampunk” and I’m no longer sure that applies, but it feels steampunk-adjacent, if that makes any sense. It has a similar kind of proto-industrial atmosphere to it. I can totally see the appeal. I think where this series and the writers’ styles and I part ways are simply in the way all of these elements are brought together into a whole. It feels very patchwork, too much of everything and not enough of anything for my tastes: “Look, we’re on a boat! Look now we’re trapped in a mine! Look, a dragon!” And I can get great boat fantasy and great mine fantasy and great dragon fantasy in separate stories that explore these settings or ideas much more rigorously. When I read fantasy, a smorgasbord is not what I’m after.
If you have read Bronze Gods, give Silver Mirrors a try. There should be a sequel—I like how Aguirre has kept the overall story arc moving briskly—though we’re two years on without a sign of one. I would probably read a third book if it emerges, but this is definitely a fantasy series I “like” rather than “love”.