I finished Delia Sherman’s The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen with some interesting insights into writing and into Harry Potter’s success, ironically. In this sequel to Sherman’s Changeling, Neef, the girl stolen from her crib by the Folk of Central Park, is sent to Miss Van Loon’s School for Mortal Changelings. School stories mean a huge cast, many of whom will interact in some way with the main character but who will also live separately and grow independently from the main character. Here, I think, is where The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen was not as strong as I should have liked, and Harry Potter succeeds. The carried over cast from Changeling are all strong characters with motivations, desires, and clear personalities. The new cast of characters in The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen—Neef’s school friends—is not as strong as even the cast of Changeling was when introduced. I feel, sadly because I very much want to love Sherman as a writer as much as I love her as a person, that Neef’s school friends exist as Neef’s entourage for the most part and largely not as individuals with their own stories and motivations. In fact, they seem to have nothing to do but to help Neef in her quest, and I find that unbelievable.
Interestingly, in Changeling Sherman writes a large, lively cast, but this cast wander into the story and out of it. They come in with what characteristics and details of their history that they need to illuminate in those moments that they share with Neef and Changeling, but do not need to be changed by their experiences or grow over time as do the students of Miss Van Loon’s in The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen.
This alerts me to the dangers of writing school stories. It seems a genre that should not be attempted unless you can and do maintain a great number of living, breathing characters. That here J. K. Rowling has succeeded magnificently makes me cheer Harry Potter.
Do these weaker characters earn The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen the condemnation it has received? (It is no longer in print.) Perhaps not.
The story, apart from those sidekicks, is an exciting one, and towards the end at least, Airboy emerges as a strong character to quest beside and breathe beside Neef. The story is lighthearted fun, for the most part, though too it explores the dangers of fairy godparents’ expectations and meddling with powers that you don’t understand. The book teaches acceptance of different people, different cultures, different subcultures without being too heavy-handed. Sherman, a resident of New York City herself, well-captures its diversity and its attitude towards life.
The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen to analytical readers and writers explores the uses of, abuses of, reasons to break, and the reasons to follow rules—particularly in the fairy tale, though these lessons I think were stronger too in Changeling because Neef and Changeling less frequently challenged and more purposefully used the rules in that story.
Lovers of folklore will also enjoy the numerous, clever interactions of Folk of all countries.
Sherman, Delia. Changeling, Book Two: The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2009.
This review is not endorsed by Delia Sherman, Viking Books, or Penguin Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.