September 1, 2016

Book Review: "The Mirror Thief" by Martin Seay

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The Mirror Thief, by Martin Seay

The Mirror Thief
By Martin Seay
Melville House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So yes, I admit it, I went into Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief specifically searching for things I could find wrong with it, because it's been the subject this year of overhype -- a 600-page debut novel that spans across three different timeframes and genres, it's earned Seay a lot more mainstream press than most first-time novelists will ever see, where people have started comparing it regularly to the work of Thomas Pynchon -- and anytime I hear of these kinds of accolades for a debut novel, I'm immediately suspicious of the book in question, and about whether it's getting these accolades because of an overzealous marketing staff and a million-dollar promotional budget, and not because of its actual quality. But lo and behold if this didn't turn out to be a pretty great book anyway, despite all the hype; and although I can't attest to how closely it sounds like Pynchon (believe it or not I've never actually read any of his work, and I know, shame on me), it did remind me quite a bit of an author I'm a near-completist of, and one of my all-time favorite currently working writers in America, the fellow genre-bending Neal Stephenson.

Like Stephenson, Seay turns in an uber-story here, telling one giant interrelated story but through three sections that at first don't seem to have any connection -- a detective tale among con artists in Las Vegas during the Bush years, a coming-of-age story among the beat poets and juvie gangs of 1950s California, and a steampunk thriller set in 1500s Italy, in which a European alchemist is hired by the Ottoman Empire to steal away a crew of master mirror-makers from the tightly controlled monopoly of such fine craftsmen the Kingdom of Venice had over the industry at the time. And like Stephenson, the tendrils of these three threads start weaving tighter and tighter together as you make your way through the oversized book, until coming to a satisfying conclusion that finally fuses them all together (or, satisfying in my eyes, anyway, but more on that in a bit). Like Stephenson, there's a bit of an metaphysical element floating throughout the storylines, not the main point but just enough otherworldliness so that you can't quite call this simple literary fiction; and like Stephenson, the novel is a great example of big concepts being bandied about through plain language, a thought-provoking yet easy-to-read epic that will have you finished with the whole thing faster than you thought it would take.

In fact, there's really one major criticism to be made about the book; that a lot of people (judging by the reviews I've read from others) seem to miss the point Seay is trying to make at the end, and who complain that the three different story threads don't come together enough in the climax to make for a satisfying read. And it's true -- despite the comparison, Seay simply doesn't bring the whole thing crashing together in the same exciting and mind-blowing way that Stephenson is known for in his own multiple-thread epics (or for that matter, Stephenson's genre peer William Gibson, who became famous in the '80s precisely for his ability to juggle multiple storylines into one massive satisfying whole by the end). But that's not Seay's goal in the first place, so it's unfair to criticize him for failing to do something he never planned on doing to begin with; instead his goal is more along the lines of Battlestar Galactica's concept of "all of this has happened before and it will all eventually happen again," a more delicate type of thread-tying that's more about noticing and appreciating the subtle similarities between each storyline, the manner in which they each echo and reflect the others in intriguing ways, and less about tying them all together into one giant uber-climax that informs all three parts in equal ways all at once. In all it makes for a really engaging and enjoyable reading experience, an impressively self-assured debut that makes it easy to see why it's been generating so much buzz, and it comes strongly recommended to a general audience precisely because of this.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about The Mirror Thief: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 1, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |