The Mirror Season, Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel & Friends 978-1-250-62412-3 $18.99, 320pp, hc) March 2021.
Content warning: This title deals graphically with the emotional and psychological fallout from sexual assault.
As Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Mirror Season opens, Graciela Cristales (“Ciela”) is dropping off a boy she does not know at the emergency room in her hometown of San Juan Capistrano, California. It quickly becomes clear that the two of them were at a party together and she knows he was drugged, to the point of semi-consciousness. She also knows something terrible was done to him – she saw something terrible done to him – and something terrible was done to her as well. Hours earlier, both of them were victims of sexual assault. Ciela gets the boy safely inside the hospital and then leaves, unable to face him, barely able to face herself. In the parking lot she encounters a beautiful flower, its petals mysteriously transformed into shards of broken mirror glass. That is the first moment that “The Snow Queen” makes its mark on the narrative, and author Anna-Marie McLemore cements that this survival story will be like no other.
Later, in a suitably dull high school class when Ciela formally meets the boy, Lock, it becomes clear to readers that he has only hazy memories of what was done to him and no idea at all that Ciela witnessed it. As the popular students – who Ciela knows were responsible, and Lock realizes must, at the very least, know about it – initiate a series of humiliating practical jokes against Lock, Ciela threatens to speak up. Bit by bit, she pushes herself forward, she voices her anger, she refuses to back down. All the while, the mirror pieces continue to appear, Lock continues to suffer, and her own “magic,” her strong intuition, which delightfully appears while working at her aunt’s bakery, remains silent and wounded. Ciela has to remember everything that happened that night, has to acknowledge everything that happened, if she is ever to break free from the sharp and dangerous world that the glass shards present and reclaim her much-loved culinary instinct.
As the truth of that horrible night comes out, McLemore does a masterful job of balancing a devastating story of surviving the most brutal of traumas with the brittle cruelty of “The Snow Queen”. The author demands that readers reconsider the fairy tale and reframe easy conclusions about the queen’s actions. Many of the story’s elements are found in the novel, not only the shards of mirrored glass but also the flowers (wonderfully updated as pawns in a neighborhood battle) but, most importantly, in the way McLemore addresses the manner in which truth can be masked by perception. They have crafted a story that seems depressingly obvious, giving readers a party, a drugged drink, a group of popular narcissistic teens who commit selfish and violent acts with impunity. But their “Snow Queen” references will give the reader pause. Is The Mirror Season what one expects? Or is this a novel that will go in another direction, a deeper direction?
McLemore, a fearless writer whose gorgeous sentences are amply evident in all of their novels, more than rises up to the challenge of going further. The author takes the horrific circumstance from that very terrible night, an episode revealed in an afterword to be achingly real, and makes it so much more complex and even more ferocious, more wicked, than readers will think possible. The bleakness of that night is a cry that becomes a scream and then a roar as Lock remembers and Ciela tries to forget, and those terrible other teenagers, those monstrous creatures, unleash their final cruelty. And then glass shatters, the thaw arrives, and Ciela embrace the truth. There are pages of a stunning declaration, of revelation. She has survived. Lock has survived. And now they are going to live.
The Mirror Season is not an easy book to read; it is not a subject that will ever be easy. But truth be told, “The Snow Queen” is not easy either. McLemore proves yet again that they are an astonishing writer, deliberate with their words and capable of putting the most arresting images down on the page. Ciela and Lock’s mutual pain is the most searing you can imagine, but their survival, their determination to survive, is something to be embraced and adored, and the writer who could create such a compelling narrative is truly an exceptional talent. Don’t miss this one; don’t miss a single page.
[Edited to correct the town the story is set in.]
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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