Tag Archives: Delia Sherman

Book Review: The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen May Be Not the Fairest of Them All, But It’s Still a Pretty Story

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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.

Will you play the Character Game with me?

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I just returned from a fantasy workshop class with Delia Sherman–or part of one–which she was kind enough to allow me join tonight.  She and Ellen Kushner were giving a lecture on how to make good characters.  Friends, this was fantastic!  I will try to capture its essence here.

First off, we all must learn the Character Game.  The Character Game is a theater game, much like vocalized character questionnaires, random questions, questions that don’t relate to plot, meant to get the author thinking about the character in a way that they do not inside of the text, things like “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  “Do you like animals?”  “How do you feel about small children?”  Nonlinear questions that pop into your head.  The writer answers either in third or first person as the character, first person being the greater goal.  I’ve tried bio sheets, but they don’t work for me because they seem forced.  I feel like I HAVE to have an answer and that everyone needs an answer, and then sometimes those are not the kind of questions I would ask my characters.  Vague answers, I realize, might remedy this.  “What kind of car do you drive?” doesn’t work in a Medieval-esque village, but the root of that, really, is asking about practicality, about style, so maybe I’d answer, “I don’t, but I’d like something to get me back and forth, it wouldn’t have to be flashy–actually I’d prefer it not be–I really don’t want to stand out.”  See?  Learning about character while dodging the question.

What was really stressed was making “even the guy who holds the horses” a human being and we talked about borrowing gestures and qualities from people around us, assigning characters to people to give them quirks and a way of speaking, of acting.

Another quite helpful thought was that, as the great gods of their universes and believing in a loving God, authors have to love (but not necessarily like) all the characters, which brings me back to A Wind in the Door and love not being a feeling but an action.

To quote Delia Sherman quoted by Ellen Kushner, “No one wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh, today I’m going to be evil.'”  To quote Ellen’s favorite teacher, “You don’t have to murder anyone to write Macbeth, you just have to have been kept up all night by a mosquito.”  To quote Delia and Ellen quoting The Last Unicorn, (hm, I actually liked their altered quote better, so the real quote):

“I told Rukh I’d feed his liver to the harpy if I had to, and so I would. And to keep you I’d take your friend Schmendrick, and I’d—” She raged herself to gibberish, and at last to silence.

“Speaking of livers,” the unicorn said. “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”

What we were told was, more simply, “A real witch [insert writer] will tear out her own liver and feed it to the harpy.”

What do you know, I HAVE included everything of import.  Friends, I look to you to be willing to play the Character Game with me.  Please?