The Green Bronze Mirror, by Lynne Ellison (CnPosner Books, 2009, younger YA, 117pp), was first published when the author was just 14, back in 1966. It has recently been republished in a new paperback edition, with new illustrations by Philip Smiley, and I was offered a review copy. Time travel back to Roman Britain and Rome itself--how could I say no?
What follows is a mixed review. But since I so almost liked this a lot (and I am certain I would have liked it more when I was 12, perhaps even loved it), and I think that others (in particular 12 year-old girls who love Rosemary Sutcliff) may enjoy it more than me, I decided to go ahead with it.
I was captivated by the story's beginning. Fifteen-year old Karen is on a sea-side holiday with her family, but spurning the dubious attractions of tourist shops, she makes her way alone along the beach, reveling in her solitude, pretending a little to herself.
Here's a bit I particularly liked, that I'm putting in because it made Karen come quite real to me:
"She went slowly down to the sea again, and finding a piece of wood brought in by the tide, she drew a horse in the firm wet sand; a good horse, because she'd been drawing them a long time, galloping along the ground with its legs in an interesting position. The position was correct, though; she had studied photographs and knew just how a horse's legs behaved when it galloped" (pp 6-7).
And when Karen finds a green bronze mirror, and looks into its polished surface, and travels back in time to Roman Britain, I was prepared to lose myself in the story.
Indeed, it was a tremendously interesting read, for the most part. Karen, now a slave, is taken to Rome to be sold, where she finds herself a nanny to two somewhat spoiled Roman children. She is appalled by the (graphically described) spectacle of the Roman games, joins a community of secret Christians, and falls in love with a handsome young man who is a slave like herself. But this is Nero's Rome, and it's not a safe place for anyone when it starts to burn. Particularly not safe for Christians....
There are parts of the story that sing, parts that enthrall and excite. Time travel-wise, it's good stuff--an excellent picture of Rome and the Romans seen through modern eyes.
But it's very much a fourteen year old's book. Things happen with a suddenness that is disconcerting--there's no skilled writerly build up to Karen's romance or her meeting with the Christians, and by the time she's ready to head back to England and find the mirror again, with the help of a magical druid a Roman witch has told her to find, I was no longer sure I cared that much.
The introverted, imaginative girl I had fallen for had become lost in a sea of events.
Karen accepts her lot as a slave with a disconcerting matter-of-factness. Surely it would be an introvert's nightmare to be in her position, but it doesn't seem to bother her. There are jarring awkwardness in the writing--as when suddenly, although we are told Karen was not particularly religious in the present, she is proclaiming things like "One day the whole world will be converted to our way of thinking" (p 68). Um. Not so, actually, and this spoiled, for me, the lovely bits about her experience with the small community of the faithful. Her relationship with her young man is also unevenly written. One moment they're in each others arms, and then, when she tells him she wants to go back to the present, his response "It's a pity, though" (p 94) lacks a certain emotional umph. This sort of choppiness spoils what could have been a swoon-worthy relationship. I could go on in this vein...
Then there is the copy editing, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. We all are guilty of typos (some of us more than others), but this book really exceeds the excusable with its misplaced and missing bits of punctuation, odd formatting, and whole words left out (although an errata note for the worst page is provided). The text, incidentally, is very small, which I thought would bother me, but didn't.
So I am disappointed--I wanted to like this book so much, and it could have been so very good, if, in the republishing, some of it had been tweaked a little by the author. Incidentally, Lynne Ellison never went on to write another book. This is a pity--I would love to read more by her, especially now that she's no longer fourteen!
At Historical Fiction, there's a guest post by Ellison and a giveaway of the book.
(disclosure: as mentioned above, I received a review copy of this book from its publisher).