A while ago, I read The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (my review)--a fantasy quest story set in India. It didn't quite make it onto my list of books I truly enjoyed, but I liked it well enough to seek out the sequel, which I had heard was a better book. And now, having finished The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2005), I am happy to say that yes, indeed, the sequel is much better! And, as an added bonus, it is a time travel book--one set in Bengal, during the time of the Moghul Empire. As one who loves time travel, and as one who is always seeking out books set outside the Euro-American fantasy scheme of things, this made me very happy indeed.
The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming picks up right where The Conch Bearer left off (although it's not necessary to have read the first one). Young Anand's ability to communicate with the mystical conch shell that empowers the brotherhood of the hidden valley has won him a place among their number, but as he struggles to learn the ways of their magic, he wonders if he really belongs there. His friend Nisha, the first girl allowed to stay in the valley, is taking to the study of plant magic like a duck to water...but Anand is having no such luck.
(I enjoyed this part of the story lots, given my affection for schools of magic).
But Anand doesn't have much time to learn new abilities. When his mentor, the Master Healer Abhaydatta, sets off to combat a newly emerged evil power, and doesn't return, Anand and Nisha ask the conch to take them to him, so that they can save him from whatever ill fate has fallen him (their loyalty exceeds their common sense in this, although with the help of the immensely powerful conch shell, they might have a chance...). Their journey goes awry, and throws them back in time to an era when the Muslim nawabs dwelt in palaces of amazing beauty, filled with deadly intrigue. It's especially deadly in this case--an evil sorcerer is bent on using an unholy djinn to gain power for himself.
Master Abhaydatta is there in the past too, but his powers are almost non-existent. Worst of all, Anand lost hold of the conch on the journey, and it's wise and powerful voice is lost to him. All he has left with which to defeat the sorcerer and return home is a small shard of the magic mirror through which he travelled...
It's an engrossing picture of a long-ago part of India's history; the author is unstinting with the small details of the texture (and taste-there's lots of food) of everyday life. All three characters slip easily into roles in the past (Anand, for instance, finds employment as a punkah wallah--a fan puller), and there are no tricksy difficulties of language or customs that sometimes beset time travellers, and slow the progression of the story.
In the first book, I had trouble suspending my disbelief about the magical conch shell. Here, however, the conch, and the magical mirror, were somehow easier to accept--there was more sense to them, and they were more immediately integral to the story. The magic didn't ever reach great depths of numinous enchantment, but it was solid enough to avoid feeling like an awkward add-on.
My one main issue with the book involves a rather startling bit of character development toward the end, which wasn't that easy to accept. But despite that, it's a book I enjoyed just fine. Those who enjoy variants of "the brave boy who's not yet come into his magical powers struggling against an infernal dark Evilness" story, given added interest by the unusual time and place, will probably enjoy it too.
Now I am trying to decide if I want to read the third book, Shadowland; opinions about it seem a mixed (School Library Journal -- no, Amazon Reviewers-- yes).