А shattered world
17 июня 2020 344

The Mirror Visitor quartet is a four-part young adult fantasy novel written by the French author Christelle Dabos (the fourth part is yet to be translated into English). The post-cataclysmic world of the books consists of floating islands (known as arks) whose inhabitants possess unique supernatural powers. The series has become an international bestseller and won many awards both in France and across the globe.

Daniel Bronsky, 15

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In the world created by French author Christelle Dabos for her The Mirror Visitor quartet, planet Earth is little more than a distant memory. It perished many centuries ago in a catastrophe known as the Rupture. Humanity continues its existence on arks—the Earth’s remaining fragments, which float above its uninhabitable Core. Some arks are quite big—with cities, forests, lakes, and mountains. These independent arks are nothing like each other, and the people on each have unique powers. The world of the novel is a veritable kaleidoscope of civilizations, cultures, and ecosystems. The first two books tell little of the mysterious origins of this world and the invisible forces that govern it, and mention only several of the arks, which only serves to pique a reader’s curiosity. 

On the ark of Anima, inanimate objects come to life and seem to have a mind of their own. Cabmen drive horseless carriages with the power of their thought. Gifted Animists can repair broken things with touch alone. Some people on the ark keep household items as pets. Perhaps the most incredible power they have is the ability to read objects. Those who know this art can absorb, sponge-like, the thoughts and feelings of the people who have touched the item being “read”—and so restore its history bit by bit.

The novel’s heroine, Ophelia, is one of Anima’s best readers and she works, unsurprisingly, as curator in one of the history museums. She loves this work, loves her museum and appears to be quite happy with her simple, quiet life. Marriage (which by Anima tradition is entered into at a young age) is far from her mind and she turns away one suitor after another. That is, until Ophelia is told she is to be the wife of a high-ranking official from another, distant, and mysterious ark—the Pole. Ophelia is upset, frightened, desperate, but this time, she cannot refuse to marry. The arks have an agreement for this engagement and their governments, nobility, and even demigods are involved. In just a few months, Ophelia leaves her family, home, and the museum and, along with her aunt, sets off on an airship into the unknown.

Ophelia’s fate turns out to be even worse than she could have imagined. From the moment she arrives in the Pole her life is in the hands of her future husband Thorn, who pays no attention to Ophelia, and his aunt Berenilde, who seems nice, but won’t tolerate insubordination. They barely see Ophelia as their equal—she’s more of an instrument in endless intrigues they’re in no hurry to explain to her. She is under constant watch, she cannot leave Berenilde‘s estate, and is punished for any disobedience. Her way home may be closed forever. The future is uncertain. Ophelia is forced to live with people she hates because only they can protect her from the even greater dangers of the outside world.

The Pole is not at all like Anima. Even setting aside some “little” things, like the terrible cold and myriad huge predators, one of the main differences between this ark and Anima is in the unique powers of its inhabitants. While the Animists’ powers allow them to influence the material world, the powers in the Pole have to do with the human mind: creating illusions that fool the senses, inflicting pain with the power of thought, connecting several minds into one web and the like. This makes for a completely different attitude toward the material world. Even more striking is the difference in the government systems on the arks. Anima is far from a democracy, but there’s at least the semblance of order and justice and the people of the ark consider each other family. Pole is an aristocratic society where the people with powers are considered upper class, while everyone else is essentially a servant, without any rights. The nobility itself is divided into clans, which fight among themselves for the attention of the ark’s leader. Sometimes, they quite literally seek out his glance, since his memory can be worse than that of a one year old child.

The Pole’s nobility live apart from the common people, in the huge flying city of Citaceleste. Citaceleste is a sort of closed world of rich and influential people who have nothing better to do than enjoy balls, chatter about nonsense, gossip, and spin intrigues. Their lives are reminiscent of the kings’ courts of the distant past on Earth, except that here the people are much more vengeful, bloodthirsty, and on top of it all, they can create mirages almost entirely indistinguishable from reality. Citaceleste is actually a dirty, neglected, poorly heated place. But the wonders of the illusionists and space manipulators turn it into a city of dazzling palaces and lovely gardens. Naturally, this is all only for the powers that be—the servants, when they’re not busy attending to the masters’ orders, must settle for living in filthy, crumbling barracks. Of course, it would be easy to mask the squalor of their homes with illusions...but who’s to be bothered? Isn’t it so much nicer to while away the hours in a smoking room?

All this is alien to Ophelia. She’s never tried to hide her flaws, pander to anyone, or lie about her intentions. Her honesty is closely tied to her power—much rarer even than reading—of entering one mirror and coming out of any other that has ever seen her reflection, though the distance she can travel is limited and she can’t travel to other arks. Still, this skill affords her some freedom and can come in very handy at times. As with most of the superpowers in the book, the author doesn’t explain how the mirror-traveling works. We do learn that just being born with the gift is not enough. You also need to know how to look at yourself openly, without judgment, not hide behind a mask, not blame the mirror, or it won’t let you in. Honesty before herself and others—these are qualities at the root of Ophelia’s character. Unexpectedly, they are also what Ophelia and her future husband have in common.

At first glance, Thorn is an off-putting personality. He’s all tough, pointy, and impassive as a rock. He speaks coldly, categorically, rudely even. What’s more, he can simply kill a person. If Ophelia had ever dreamed of a husband, it wouldn’t be one like him. But there’s an important detail, that shows through with time: Thorn, like Ophelia, defies Citaceleste’s society. His somber figure towers on the periphery of the crowds of gaudy ladies and gentlemen at their endless masquerade balls. Thorn finds their way of life abhorrent and he doesn’t try to hide it. With his brazen character, complex past (Thorn is a bastard son) and incorruptibility as chief treasurer of the Pole—he’s earned the hatred of the nobility. Both Thorn and Ophelia, despite their exceptional powers and strong-willed natures lived solitary lives, consumed by their work. Both prefer that life to a meaningless and vacuous one.

I really enjoyed the dialogues in [the first book of the series] A Winter’s Promise [English edition: Europa Editions, 2018. Translated by Hildegarde Serle. ISBN 9781609454838]. Each is a gripping collision between two personalities, and shows a constantly changing dynamic while revealing much about the characters. Sometimes I would read dialogues over several times to fully savor all the emotional tones and lively exchanges. When Ophelia speaks with Thorn, for example, their dialogue is tense, a little awkward. Thorn puts pressure on Ophelia (it seems he doesn’t know how to communicate otherwise) and then she suddenly and softly says something incredibly daring and the seemingly unshakable Thorn, barely disguising his bewilderment, goes quiet. This silence, in turn, reveals yet another facet of his personality.

Image: europaeditions.com

Ophelia is a smart young woman and is well aware of the position she is in. Unlike her aunt, she understands that rebelling and complaining is futile and stupid. You have to accept the inevitable and focus on other things, like finding reliable allies. She fully submits to Thorn and Berenilde when that’s necessary (that is to say, almost always). Ophelia’s life is like a boat tossed by the waves. All she can do is hold on for dear life, hoping that she won’t be pulled to the bottom by the whirlpool of internecine conflicts, power grabs, romantic drama, and backdoor politics.

Even so, from the very start of her journey, Ophelia resolves to fight for her freedom, to wait, using every opportunity to secure her position, her connections, and her voice. At first, her dream of independence seems naive. But we don’t yet know Ophelia. We have no idea of the trials that await her, the people that will cross her path, and the places her talent will take her.

Ophelia’s life soon becomes significantly more free. But also much more dangerous. A simple museum worker, she rises to the towering spires of the floating city—and beyond.

Now what lies ahead?

Polina Zelenova, 17

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I’d only just put away my down jacket in favor of a light overcoat, when it started snowing again. To mark the occasion, I set aside the history book I’d been reading and picked up Christelle Dabos’s A Winter’s Promise. I knew nothing about the plot, but I’d seen so many glowing reviews online that I was almost afraid to start reading. I needn’t have feared—the story drew me in from the very first page. 

The book, the first in The Mirror Visitor quartet, starts with a mysterious and ominous prologue about God, a book, and how the Earth was smashed to pieces. The author briefly sketches out the world of the novel’s setting. Twenty-one arks, each a fragment of the original Earth, float in the expanse of space. Each has its own climate, culture, and powers unique to the people who live there. In the first book, the reader is introduced to two arks—Anima and the Pole.

The main character is Ophelia, who lives on Anima and possesses the rare gift of reading things by touch and passing through mirrors. She’s not much of a beauty, and, caught up in the study of artifacts, she has little interest in marriage. But everything changes when Ophelia ends up in an arranged marriage with a man who lives in the distant and sinister Pole. Who is this mysterious groom? Why did he choose Ophelia? Who stands to benefit from this marriage? Our heroine is about to find out.

Ophelia, who values sincerity above all else, leaves the quiet of her museum and ends up embroiled in the intrigues at court, where everyone hides under the guise of civility. At first glance, the reader might think that the greatest trial for this delicate girl will be to survive the harsh Pole winter. But it soon becomes clear that the refined world of the aristocracy is the true danger.

Everything is not as it appears. Allies can turn to enemies in the blink of an eye, but might one also find a friend amid foes?

missing of clairdelune
Image: europaeditions.com

In describing the court customs so foreign to our heroine, the author exposes the sophisticated pretenses of the Pole’s nobility, which is in marked contrast with the idyllic life on Anima (Ophelia’s home ark), where everyone is cousins. 

The bitter cold of the Pole also seems to contrast with the court’s intrigues. In the world of fantasy, the customs and characters of “Northern” peoples are often associated with honesty and directness (take Game of Thrones, which is often compared with Dabos’s series), but here the cold winds seemed to have carried away all the nobles’ humanity. I was struck by the descriptions of the harsh features in the Pole, while the Anima landscapes are full of warmth and coziness and each thing has its own soul. Ophelia’s living scarf deserves particular mention—it’s definitely the most adorable character in the book!

By the end of the first part of the quartet, you realize how important and symbolic it is that Ophelia can pass through mirrors. A person with this power must be able to see and accept herself as she is. It takes great strength to be yourself and not give in to pressure. Will the fragile girl from a stranger land manage, as she takes on a whole world by herself?


Katerina Omelnitskaya, 11

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The Mirror Visitor. What are these series about? It’s the story of a shattered world and one frail girl who has to become strong. Before I started reading, I read online reviews for the book. There were so many different opinions. This turned out to be the kind of book I devour like a boa constrictor and then slowly digest, rereading parts that I liked or wanted to clear up. The Mirror Visitor series doesn’t feel like a “typical” fantasy book, as some of the reviewers had written.

In my view, the shattered world created by Christelle Dabos, fantastical and unrealistic as it is, is very much like our as-yet-unshattered world. Yes, our world isn’t literally smashed into fragments, but it is splintered in spirit. As I read, I had the impression that the writer was describing the real world allegorically. As in fables—we read about animals, but understand that the joke is on human failings. For example, I thought that Anima (one of the huge cosmic arks, the one the heroine Ophelia was born on) is not unlike the homeland of the author, who is French, at least the way I imagine the country from books I’ve read. As for the other ark, the Pole? Snows, frost, freezing cold, wild wolves and bears, the hostile and inscrutable people.... Sound at all familiar? Unfortunately, this is exactly how others usually picture our country. In the news, we constantly hear about how any information can be a lie. Fake news is a new sort of weapon. Maybe that’s why there’s a character like Gail in the series. She’s the last of a clan of “Nihilists,” and can see the truth, free from mirages. I may be wrong, but I thought this book depicted our real world as seen through the eyes of a fantasy author.

Image: europaeditions.com

The story isn’t complete, but I think that good (truth and justice) will triumph over evil, and evil will be punished. There will be long-awaited, real (not illusory) peace. Because people in that world and in ours are equally tired of animosity, injustice, lies, and wars.

When I was little, my grandma would tell me about the Great Patriotic War, World War II. I had a terrifying nightmare that the war had started again. I saw explosions and a destroyed city. I thought the whole world around me was shattering to bits.... Grandma told me then that there would be no more wars, that we live in a completely different time. She said people will never forget the horror that is war, and will never repeat it. That is what memory is for—there are things that can never be forgotten. The series also touches on this, among other things, in the third book. And then? And then there are so many thoughts, images, and hunches, pages written and crossed out...like Ophelia, I am catastrophically short on experience and knowledge.

There’s a lot that’s different between us, but there are things Ophelia and I have in common, too. For example, neither of us wants to grow up. It’s as though we don’t particularly need to. We want to be as we are, to be left alone, and not have others try to change us. Are you having an easy time growing up? You’re a lucky one. For me, the process is downright torturous. And this book made me think hard about three things.

First, life is not just about what’s around us. It’s also about what’s inside. I liked that the book has so many thoughts, feelings, and so much about the inner world of the characters.

Second, it looks like Life doesn’t much care what we think of it. If there’s something we don’t want to do ourselves (say, grow up), it’ll give us a nice kick in the rear, to speed up the process.

Finally, the more I grow and learn, the more I understand how little I really know. It’s like walking toward a mirage in the desert. The faster you approach it, the more unattainable it seems. Knowledge, of course, is power. But it’s also a heavy burden, like the three freshly-read, weighty tomes of this interesting series in my lap right now.

So what am I thinking about now? One way or another, I simply have to grow up, no matter how much I resist. And I’ll have to wait for the fourth installment of the series to learn how things worked out for Ophelia, who finally grew up….

The book is marked “12+”, but I often came across words and expressions I didn't know. I had to do some digging online. That’s not uncommon for books I’ve read from the previous century, but this was the first time it’s happened to me with a modern book.

Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
These reviews were originally published in 2018 and 2019

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