The Singular and Extraordinary tale of Mirror and Goliath with the intriguing tag-line: The peculiar Adventures of John Loveheart, ESQ - from Angry Robot is Ishbelle Bee’s spectacular debut in the speculative fiction world. Just like the peculiar title, the novel itself is a riotous splash of many a familiar fairy tale liberally wrangled with a dash of macabre horror, set during the fag-end of the Victorian Era – An 1880’s London rife with the East-end murders, missing children and magic like blood-red poppies floating in the air. It’s a sort of the author’s love paean to this genre: Bee, the author who loves Victorian Top Hats and Cake Tents incorporates both these elements and a lot more from her favourite era into the novel- beautifully entwining them into a tight little fairy tale of her own. By parts lyrical and scary, it’s a gem of a novel that stands apart from other titles in today’s world. Kudos to Angry Robot for having backed up and brought out this game-changer to us.
The Lord of the Underworld, Death, shape-shifting guardians, soul-thieving monsters, demons who eat children, vexed Scotland Yard detectives, a mysterious and alluring “damsel in distress” heroine and her even more mysterious “sort of” suitor who dabbles in the most outrageous of fashions (ladybirds adorning bright coloured shirts!) – The story of Mirror and her guardian Goliath features all this and much more. The story is spelt out through many different POVs (Some first person, some in third person) and is not a linear unspooling of events – rather it criss-crosses across time and flits across places – From England to Egypt to the Underworld and beyond - knitting individual sections of the story to finally unleash that final masterpiece – like tiny pieces of a rather large unsolved puzzle falling into place.
So a little about the fairy tale then. Mirror is a young girl who alights back in England after having sailed from Egypt – along with her guardian, a huge hairy bearded fellow by the comely name of Goliath Honey-Flower. Goliath is looking to “exorcise” an unwanted spirit from inside Mirror and he goes from one shady place in London to another – meeting phoney (“psychic as a dead haddock”) psychic mediums to tarot-card readers – finally meeting a genuine spirit-talker in Mrs. Pigwittle who arranges for a séance meeting – that includes a motley set of mismatched individuals. Including the aforesaid, John Loveheart. (Bright lemon coloured hair sticking up as if electrocuted and waistcoat embroidered in red hearts!)
The story zigzags from here on – where we switch POVs – seesawing from one head to the other and characters get introduced at zany speed one after the other. It could get confusing if you aren’t paying attention. As Bee takes us back in time to Mirror’s past – the incident with the Grandfather who has stolen a special clock from a certain somebody and then goes mad – hearing voices coming from inside the clock.
It’s a bit like downing gulps of the green fairy and jumping from one hallucination to the other. The bizarre fairy tales – that are actually the back stories to both Mirror and John – blend and mesh with each other, crossing paths and twisting reality into some dark chocolate pretzel. Sometimes I got lost but the extremely wondrous prose of Ishbelle kept me hooked on. And of course, the feeling at the back of my head that this was building up to be something seriously wonderful and intriguing. We come across Mr. Fingers, the adoptive parent of John – who is actually the Lord of the Underworld. A vile fellow twisted by his greed and ambition. Deep into the story – where the lines between reality and fairy tale cross each other and disappear, we meet tons of interesting characters: Aunt Eva – lazy as a cat, beautiful as fire and mad as the buzzing of bees, John’s brother – the wicked & mad Tumbletee (Oh the play on Jack the Ripper was simply brilliant!), Sergeant Detective Percival White and his constable and lots more. Each leave an indelible mark on the reader.
But asked to pick a favourite, I think mine would be Goliath. The good-natured extremely loving detective-turned guardian angel for Mirror. His desire to protect his ward and all the follow-up actions that leads to the adventures detailed in this tale has that touch of nobility and goodness. Unsullied by anything worldly. Like pure gold. Mirror forms the perfect “foil” to spin out the fairy tales behind her origin – but apart from being a mouthpiece or POV, I simply didn’t engage with her. Her counter-point in the whole story, Loveheart however, is a much more sympathetic character whom we grow to know and love as the story unfolded.
But as we hurtle towards end of this visually stunning tale – replete with bizarre imagery and mind-boggling mystical acts of magic – one story after the other seemingly not related and yet forming individual pieces of the larger beautiful tapestry – we bemoan the end of something strange and beautiful that you cannot really describe.
Reading this book has been like that. At times vexing and highly confusing, the singular and extraordinary tale of Mirror & Goliath is a stunning kaleidoscope of fairy tales. And I must warn you that it’s not a straightforward retelling. But a very dark twisted re-imagination of some tales we’ve heard and a lot many that we have not. Arresting and eminently readable, this book marks a brilliant beginning to Ishbelle Bee’s writing. I won’t be surprised if some of the big names of Hollywood buy the movie rights to this one. ‘Coz this is the stuff that blurs the line between dreams, reality and fairy tales. And is spun in such an authoritative manner that you cannot help but believe.