Reckless, by Cornelia Funke (2010, Little Brown, upper middle grade onwards, 394 pages, illustrated by the author)
"Once upon a time, there was boy who set out to learn the meaning of fear..."
After his father's disappearance, Jacob Reckless made a habit of creeping into his study, searching for answers. One night, when he was twelve, he found a piece of paper: "The mirror will open only for he who cannot see himself." And with that cryptic clue to guide him, Jacob passes through his father's mirror into another realm. A place where fairy tales are real.
Fast forward twelve years, during which Jacob has explored the mirror world obsessively, neglecting his mother and little brother, Will. The mirror world has become enmired in a war between humans and the Goyl, stone-skinned subterranean people who are bent on claiming the upper lands as their dominion. For the first time, Will has followed Jacob through the mirror, and disaster has struck. Will has been injured by a Goyl, and is slowly turning into one of them himself, the stone spreading through his skin.
Now Jacob must desperately quest through all the dangers of the twisted tales of the mirror world, looking for a way to save his little brother. Accompanying the two brothers are Fox, a shapeshifting girl who has been Jacob's companion for years (who is waiting for him to notice that she is more than just his friend, the fox, but also a girl who loves him), and Will's girlfriend Clara, who made her way through the mirror to find him. Together they face a frightening panoply of magic and mayhem in a world where death is no fairy tale at all.
"I know why you're here." Clara's voice sounded distant, as though she were speaking not about him but about herself. "This world doesn't frighten you half as much as the other one. You have nothing and nobody to lose here. Except Fox, and she clearly worries more about you than you do about her. You've left all that could frighten you in the other world. But then Will came here and brought it all with him." (page 208).
Despite the ostensibly already grown-up age of the central characters, this is a book about growing-up, about how the relationships of brothers and friends, and perceptions of oneself, change in terrifying ways as adulthood is entered. Jacob might be 24 on paper, but the young man in the mirror world is more an avatar of oldness exploring a fantasy world than a convincing adult--his character is still very much that of the reckless adolescent, confused by his emotional responses to the questions posed by growing up. Although sex lurks in the background (it's never explicitly or centrally part of the story), for Jacob it is still the hormonally charged lust of the adolescent--he has yet to learn love (oh poor Fox. I felt for her so very much).
And the lands behind the mirror, built of fractured fairy tales, are full of metaphors that reflect this. The younger brother, turning into unloving stone, who his older brother can no longer protect. The tomboy girl (Fox), who now wants to be seen as someone else. The fairy tales share this theme--there was no instant true love that could save the sleeping beauty here in this place, and the gingerbread houses lie empty. The way to the Red Fairy, with all her magically irresistible sex appeal, lies through the lands of the unicorns, who gore and trample anyone who looks at them. The mirror world itself is rushing away from its own childhood--new inventions and technology (many of them introduced by Jacob's father) are changing things rapidly.
This reliance on metaphor is fascinating, and had a profound effect on the way I read the book. Mostly I gallop through books I'm enjoying, hardly aware that there is an author at all. When reading this book, however, I was always conscious of the Funke's presence, deliberately introducing scenes and set pieces to further the creation of the edifice of the story. This feeling was heightened by the occasional insertion of explicit fairy tale references, like the quote I used to begin this review (which comes right at the end of the book, on page 389--I hope it's not too much of a spoiler). She is a lot like a dungeon master, putting challenges in the way of her characters, rolling her narrative dice to determine if they will live or not.
And indeed I think the most perfect audience for this book would be the roll playing 12 or 13 year old boy, caught (metaphorically) in the same place as Jacob...So although this is one that will be enjoyed very much by many adults, this is a middle grade book (I had wondered). But it's not a middle grade book for younger kids--there are terrifying things here. The cover is rather brilliant in this regard--it is fierce and scary and magical, just like the mirror world, but it is disturbing enough to deter those looking for happy endings who won't be comfortable inside this world (it's another one I had to keep face down so my seven year old didn't have to look at it).
I'm not quite the right reader for this one--I enjoyed it lots intellectually, but the flip side of that is that I never lost myself in the world of the story, which happens with the books I love best. That being said, my only real complaint is with the ending; as the jacket flap says: "If you've come for happily ever after, you've come to the wrong place." But I wouldn't have minded just a bit more reason to think that Jacob is finally going to grow up....(oh, Fox, I feel for you so), and I think the story needed that hope.
Other thoughts at Squeaky Books, IMCPL Kids, and A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy.