Based on the review by James over at Grognardia I decided to try out The Mirror and the Phoenix by Avram Davidson, purchased for a mere six bits at my local used bookstore.
The Mirror and the Phoenix can best be described as “historical fantasy,” a pretty commonplace notion these days with books featuring dragons in Napoleonic Europe, but the main character is in this case Vergil (better known by his Anglicized name Virgil), the author of the Aeneid and the Eclogues. The real Publius Vergilius Maro was one of the greatest poets of his age, the fictional Vergil is instead based on the Medieval myths that Vergil possessed magical, prophetic abilities. This notion was at least partially based on Christians seeing intimations to the birth of Christ in his Eclogues.
As James points out in his review, the great treasure of Davidson is the extraordinary, almost overwhelming amount of visceral detail he places in his prose. Everything is rich in description, and at times the author lets the main character slips into psychedelic trances where he really begins to pour on the strangeness.
If I had a bone to pick with the book, it is twofold. One, the author occasionally switches scenes between paragraphs with no warning, an event suddenly shifting to the people talking about the event after the fact. It’s jarring, but nothing really annoying. Second, however, is the fact that Vergil, as a powerful but not too-powerful magus, can literally pull out of his pocket the magical solution to problems that confront him almost at will, making many of the big conflict scenes anticlimatic. With little in the way of baseline knowledge by the author about what Vergil is or is not capable of doing, you really don’t have a sense of being able to tell how much trouble he is in at any given moment.
In reflecting on this, I realized who Vergil reminded me of–Doctor Who. If you’ve watched the TV show, especially the older episodes, you know that the Doctor would occasionally “just know” exactly how to handle a situation, or pull something out of his pocket, or suddenly reveal that yes, he does know Venusian Kung Fu Telepathy or something of the like. And without a companion to be the sympathetic figure for the audience to be terrified for, you never really know when he’s over his head. Vergil read in much the same way, and despite Davidson doing a fair job of laying out the secret plot that is revealed at the end, you can’t help but think you’ve been gypped out of bigger, showier climax.