Summary: Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space and even Arthur Conan Doyle.
Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.
In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.
Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.
But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.
Thoughts: This book is going to be difficult for me to review properly. In part because it’s such a brain-bender, requiring you to really really challenge your grasp of timelines and your sense of reality, and in part because a section of my brain just wants to make this review entirely out of swear words, because it’s just that amazing!
Continuing from where White Space left off, Emma is now trapped in the mind of Elizabeth, who is in turn trapped inside an asylum in an alternate-universe Victoria London that is besieged by a strange thick fog and a dreaded rotting disease. Rima, Tony, and Bode are also there, but as though they grew up in that London, rather than as the characters we got to know in the previous book. Kramer is still after the secret of the Dickens Mirror and the ability to jump to different Nows.
When I said this book is a brain-bender, I wasn’t exaggerating. Firstly, there’s all the ideas that got introduced during White Space. That book-worlds can yield real people. That characters in books can create characters of their own and in turn become real. That real people can have pieces of themselves put into characters in books and thus share a deep link with them. That time is an illusion. That’s all still in there, and is fundamental to understanding what’s going on. Then you add in a tweak on dissociative identity disorder, the question of whether characters are more real than the people who created them, and whether or not I as the reader am even real or whether Ilsa Bick is still writing me!
(No, seriously, I actually had a moment during this book where I doubted my own reality. The Dickens Mirror may go down in my personal history as the only novel to give me an existential crisis.)
Then it goes on to get even more meta with the ending, when Emma is sitting in a bookstore listening to an author talk about her new novel, The Dickens Mirror, and how it plays with multiverse theory, and Emma thinks that she hates it when characters in books have the same name as her. And while it’s a lovely little tongue-in-cheek scene, it also begs the question as to whether or not that Emma is the primary Emma, or whether that’s even an applicable question because of course she can’t be, she’s just a character in the book I’m reading, OH WAIT MY BRAIN HURTS AGAIN!
This is what you’re in for when you read this series. And I strongly recommend you do. It’s phenomenal, one of the best YA series to come along in years, and tragically underappreciated because it involves a highly complex plot that many people just don’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around. It’s not a light read. It may require you to keep notes so that the converging plotlines and multi-dimensional versions of characters keep making sense. It’s the kind of series you read when you want something utterly out of the ordinary, something to challenge you and your fundamental beliefs about reality and the nature of being. It introduces some advanced ideas that aren’t simple to comprehend and are even more difficult to apply.
But here’s the thing. If you can fall into the right headspace, throw aside your understanding of reality and just let the story carry you along, it still all makes sense. It’s a mind-twister for certain, but it’s still a cohesive story that gets a solid conclusion within the boundaries it sets for itself. It’s not trite. It’s disturbing on multiple levels, both with stomach-churning imagery and thought-churning quantum theory. I think it works best for people who already know how to look at the world sideways, who look at life from different angles and who don’t just accept things as they are because that’s what everyone says is so. It’s for people who love to ask questions and be challenged by the answers. And it’s a series with amazing reread potential, something with earlier scenes you can probably read completely differently when you already know the truth.
I can’t recommend White Space and The Dickens Mirror enough, I really can’t. Bick works wonders here, true wonders, and I have immense respect for someone who can sit down and hold this entire story in their head while writing it out. Take your time with this one, let the amazing characters and the outstanding story sweep you away, keep copious notes, and enjoy the ride. I’ve found a gem among gems, a novel with wide cross-genre appeal, and while it may take some getting used to, it’s worth every last second.
(Received for review from the publisher.)