I bought this for my 12 year old daughter as an alternative to the dystopian fiction that kids seem hooked on these days and when she took a break, I grabbed it and started reading it myself. What a great surprise! I occasionally read historical fiction so am familiar with the genre (and this is all based on a remarkable true story
), but I never remotely thought I'd get pulled into this like I did. Murray is a very
talented writer and story-teller and I'm again jealous of another author. If there indeed were punctuation and grammar issues when the book was first offered as one reviewer complains of, they have since been fixed, I noticed none.
The plot is simple: Anna, a bright and curious 15 year old, discovers an old mirror in her grandmother's house and magically steps into 1643, smack in the middle of the English Civil War. In the ensuing adventure she begins to learn the meaning of courage. Murray doesn't spend time explaining how or why this happens, but gets right into the telling of the story.
The first half of the book is very descriptive, thoroughly fleshing out the environment of 17th century English castle-life. Foods, clothes, customs, the darkness of the nights without electric lights, the quietness of the days without planes and cars, and all the little things that might not occur to you at first thought are explained in thoughtful detail:Anna looked out over the landscape. It rose and dipped for miles, rugged and rocky, then soft and velvety as the meadows blended into the craggy heath. It was hard to believe that something so pretty had been witness to something so ugly. But then she remembered the spider and the butterfly they had just passed moments before...
Around the mid-point of the book, the excitement begins, and Anna is pulled into the conflict as she tries to find her role while helping her "cousin" Elizabeth defend the castle from a besieging army. There is excitement, trickery, humor, doubt, and fear and a poignant moment when she comes face to face with the evils of war as she struggled for her very life:Tossing hot embers was just as difficult when Anna watched in shock as several of the enemy caught fire. One of them had reached the top of the wall, his roughly gloved hands grasping the battlements. His helmet must have fallen off in the climb. Stepping back briefly in surprise, she grabbed one of the embers with her gloved hands and threw it in his face. He ducked a moment so that the smoldering piece glanced off his head. One spark was all it took for his hair to ignite. For a moment Anna could do nothing but stare in horror as his hair caught fire and burned wildly. The pungent smell of scorched hair and flesh was revolting, but she still could not avert her eyes as she watched in morbid fascination, the flames engulfing his face like a malevolent halo crowning a god of the underworld. Then their eyes locked in an excruciating moment that Anna would never forget as long as she lived. In the depths of those liquid orbs, wild with panic and fear, Anna saw the awareness of his mortality flash before him, and the vain grasping at a life that was fast slipping away. He stared into her eyes, pleading for something, but what? And as the fire consumed him, he lost his grasp and footing, and a blood-curdling scream escaped him as he plunged to his death below.
And as the story progresses to its finish, Murray inserts some fine examples of insightful and touching writing:"Time stops when one is ill. Gravely ill." Anna told her. She was remembering a time when she had been sick with rheumatic fever as a young child. Her joints had been so inflamed she could not even walk to the bathroom. Her father had to carry her. The pain was a blur now, but time seemed to have stopped then. Pain and illness have a way of pulling you out of time's current and leaving you momentarily by the wayside. Your world shrinks to a string of moments, held together by an acute awareness of nothing, save your own overwhelming predicament.
The Gilded Mirror: Corfe Castle is a surprise gem, a clean and healthy well-written alternative to what's commonly offered to teens (and adults!) these days. Murray obviously loves her subject and is as good a writer of historical fiction as is out there.