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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

The Mirror Thief

by Martin Seay

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Comparing this to Cloud Atlas (or any of David Mitchell´s works) is like comparing rat poison to cheesecake - sure, both are technically edible, but given the choice, I´d rather have the cheesecake. I won´t deny that I started this (with great annticipation)because of its favourable reviews & comparisons to Mitchell, but after almost 200 pages of mindnumbing verbosity, waiting for *something* to happen, I aborted. This is probably the 2nd time in 20 years I didn´t force myself to finish a book I wasn´t enjoying, but I honestly couldn´t bear the thought of investing any more time in it. Perhaps it´s my loss; however, I don´t think so. ( )
  thiscatsabroad | Mar 12, 2017 |
Very annoying pretentious habit of omitting quotation marks around dialogue, forcing the reader to stop at multiple spots to suss out if it's the narrator speaking or the character, or if the character is thinking or talking. Or which character is talking.

Very annoying pretentious habit of coining compound words. To wit: "artform," "creampuff," "lakebed," "cardcounters," "waterfountain," "groundsquirrels." Etc. Etc.

Excruciating amount of minutiae dealing with setting. Descriptions ad infinitum of costs of meals, every bite of food the character takes, and what he did for the next 20 minutes after the meal. Descriptions of every sight the character sees on route to a destination. Viz: "...into the Desert Passage mall, zigzagging between shoppers, catching details from the blur of ornaments and signs: tunnel vaults, porticos, jeweled mosaics, screens and lattices, eight-pointed stars. Hookah Gallery, Pashmina by Tina, Napoleon Fine Fashions, Lucky Eye Design. " Every step the character takes chronicled: from parking lot, to the entrance of a hotel, through the skywalk to another hotel, through the casino to Flamingo road, into another cab. ...Etc. Why do editors refuse to do their jobs anymore?

Slogging through at page 342 now. From other reviews I've read, I know not to expect a big reveal linking the 3 plot lines very closely. I'm not entirely sure I won't skim through the second half of the book to the end.... ( )
  ChayaLovesToRead | Feb 28, 2017 |
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

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 ( )
  jasonpettus | Aug 31, 2016 |
Veronica, a minor character in THE MIRROR THIEF, teaches Curtis Stone about art. She uses her background in art history to inform him that the primary goal of art was to create precise representations of reality. This often meant tracing a camera obscura image. Photography made this approach less important. Thus the modern era in art began by exploring how perception alters reality. “Now it’s all about two eyes and a brain in between.”

This conversation helps to understand Martin Seay’s novel because it focuses on how a particular book changed when read. As an art form, writing has always emphasized how characters respond to reality. “Books always know more than their authors do. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas."

The centerpiece of Seay’s novel is another book of the same name. Stanley Glass obsesses over it because he thinks it reveals secrets about magic. That book is set in 16th Century Venice and tells of a plot to steal the technology behind the creation of mirrors. The protagonist, Vittor Crivano, is a physician and alchemist. The book's author, Adrian Welles, uses poetry and obscure references to magic to tell Crivano's story. These seem important to Stanley and thus they drive him to cross the country to find Welles. “Mister Welles, I would really like to know just how much of your goddamn book is true.”

Seay uses many genres and three settings to tell his story. The original Venice and two recreations focus on gambling and grifting during the Renaissance, the Beat era in California and contemporary Las Vegas. In spite of its excessive length and tendency to drift into all forms of minutia, the plot is engaging. The evocations of its three settings and the use of interesting and nuanced characters make this novel a compulsive read.

Seay manages to unify these three quite different stories under one motif—mirrors. The 16th Century Venetians believed mirrors had magical powers over the souls of men. Thus they were willing to risk their lives to own them. In the 1950s, a beat poet’s bathroom mirror contains the quote, “this is the face of god you see.” This suggests that mirrors may reveal things about ourselves. In the end, Stanley realizes that the magic in Welles book may never have been there. Instead it may have been a reflection of his close reading of the book. Like modern art and mirrors, a difficult book reflects and distorts reality. “The reader, not the poet, is the alchemist.” Stanley reflects on the three-card Monty con he was running during his youth on the boardwalk in Venice Beach. He says: “At any given moment, you may be certain of the cards, but the other man—your opponent, your mark—you can never be certain of what he perceives, what he thinks, what he will do”

In the final analysis, Seay has written and intriguing, but flawed novel. He seems to embrace style at the expense of clarity. One has to struggle to understand obscure references that divert attention from the story. The narrative tends to meander for pages into obscure philosophizing. Too many loose ends in the plot remain unresolved. One is left with a strong impression of having been conned by an expert. ( )
  ozzer | Jun 5, 2016 |
We begin in glitzy Las Vegas, 2003, as a war weary, ex-marine tracks down a con artist gambler, who happens to be an old family friend. We then shift to Venice Beach, circa 1958, where a runaway, New York teenager is in search of a poet, that wrote a little book called The Mirror Thief. It is about an alchemist from the sixteenth century. And finally, you guessed it, we travel to Venice, in the late 1500s and follow this alchemist, as he plans to steal an enchanted mirror.
How the author weaves these stories together, is a marvel, especially for a debut. A nifty blend of thriller, historical fiction and magical realism, anchored by some exceptional prose. Smart and ambitious.
I have seen comparisons to Cloud Atlas, (high praise indeed), but I am not so sure about that, other than in a very general way but it does stand on it's own. Bravo! ( )
  msf59 | May 12, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The distinctive voices in the three major sections were a semi-incidental side effect of pursuing another major priority: I wanted the dominant point of view in those sections to be an extremely close third person. My rule — which I bent a little in the first chapter of each section in order to get the reader situated — was that the narration can only mention something when the protagonist is aware of it. This has the obvious effect of obliging the reader to see through the protagonists’ eyes, but it also has the (I hope) more subtle effect of hiding things from the reader that the protagonists have stopped being aware of just because those things are too obvious, or too close. (Visibility and invisibility are big concerns in the book, and I’ve tried to play with the fact that things are actually more likely to slip past us when they’re being taken for granted than when they’re being hidden.)
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