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Phoenix And Mirror by Avram Davidson

Phoenix And Mirror (original 1966; edition 1983)

by Avram Davidson

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230550,307 (3.91)1
Title:Phoenix And Mirror
Authors:Avram Davidson
Info:Ace (1983), Paperback

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The Phoenix and the Mirror by Avram Davidson (1966)

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ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

The Phoenix and the Mirror, written by Avram Davidson and published in 1966, is based on the medieval legend that the poet Vergil (The Aeneid) was a mage and sorcerer. Queen Cornelia of Carsus has taken hostage part of Vergil’s soul. This leaves him feeling like less than a full man — he’s unmotivated and impotent. Though some of his parts don’t work too well, Vergil’s brain still works fine, so he sets out to meet Cornelia’s demand: manufacture a virgin speculum so Cornelia can scry the whereabouts of her kidnapped daughter, Laura.

It’s not too easy to make a magic mirror, even for an ancient and powerful sorcerer like Vergil. His first task is to acquire tin and copper ore that has never been used before, but this is difficult in a time when the Sea Huns are prowling the waters and controlling trade. Even if he can get all the materials he needs, the actual construction is an extremely precise and delicate alchemical operation.

Luckily, Vergil has several allies: his colleague Clemens, who’s like a walking encyclopedia; a crew of students and apprentices who do most of Vergil’s laboratory work; a mysterious Phoenician who is willing to guide him in his travels; a strange woman who dispenses advice and prophecies as she feeds her cats; and a down-and-out Sea-Hun king who can be bribed with the promise of worshipping Aphrodite in her temple of beautiful priestesses.

Avram Davidson uses the backdrop of Vergil’s quest to fill The Phoenix and the Mirror with some real geography, history, and science, and plenty of richly-detailed bits of medieval legends, fantastical creatures, alchemical instructions, and astrological divinations. Thus, you’ll meet a cyclops, a gargoyle and a homunculus along with Roman soldiers and Sea-Huns and you’ll learn the exact techniques for the construction of magical mirrors.

The Phoenix and the Mirror is beautifully written and gently and delightfully humorous, too, as Vergil and Clemens playfully stab each other with their witty banter and as Vergil manipulates his intellectual inferiors with his subtle persuasive techniques. The book begins with Vergil being chased by manticores through the sewers of Naples, and it ends with a surprise and a twist, but the middle of the book bogs down with too many details about Vergil’s travels and the construction of the mirror.

Intriguing questions about Vergil remain — Where did he come from? How old is he? What are his powers? What was he searching for in the sewers? I hope these will be answered in the sequel: Vergil in Averno. ( )
1 vote Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
I'm really not sure what to think of this. It reminds me of John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting, somehow; something about the style, the density of it and allusiveness. I'm sure I missed some things by not being aware of the Vergil stories, not picking up on all the mythological references properly -- and I have a pretty good background in that sort of thing, since I took Classics.

It's a slightly different style than expected, too, I think. It slides seamlessly between scenes without any transition, it slips from direct speech into reported speech -- it doesn't make things easy. I quite liked the writing style, for the most part, but I wouldn't like it to be a common one, if that makes any sense.

The story itself... it's a quest narrative, but the quest is more about knowledge than action, at its heart. It's about making a magical object, in a context where magic isn't easy, isn't a shortcut as it can be in other fantasy works. It's a long slow process, like any other way to make something, and it requires sacrifices and effort. It's an interesting take on it.

I wasn't overwhelmingly fond of the portrayal of women -- Cornelia, Phyllis and Laura seemed pretty nebulous, and the love aspect was just flung in there -- but The Phoenix and the Mirror was something a little different to my usual fare. It just wasn't as good as I'd hoped. ( )
1 vote shanaqui | Feb 10, 2014 |
Loads of fun vocabulary ( )
  BakuDreamer | Sep 7, 2013 |
Naples in an impossible Roman age as only the superstitions of the dark ages would have imagined it; the poet Virgil as a puissant alchemist and sorcerer. A very enjoyable adventure with a well-realized mystical order. First in a series. The second novel, Vergil in Averno, is extremely weird and can be difficult to read, but has the usual Davidson virtue of being impeccably written. The third novel in the series, The Scarlet Fig, has been posthumously edited to completion and should be available in 2005. ( )
  selfnoise | Sep 14, 2005 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Avram Davidsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, LeoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hickman, SteveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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SCIENCE FICTION. Legend has it that Virgil, author of THE AENEID, was more than a mere poet. Legend has it that he was an adventurer, an alchemist - a magus. Driven to do the bidding of Queen Cornelia of Carsus, who has taken hostage part of his soul, Virgil embarks upon an attempt to create a virgin speculum - a magic mirror - so that Cornelia can locate her kidnapped daughter. Virgil's quest to assemble this artefact takes him across the ancient world to encounter powers and prophecies, gods and monsters - all the myths and legends of a time that never was. The time of Virgil Magus.… (more)

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