I really wanted to like The Mirror Thief. The kaleidoscopic, genre-bending historical suspense thriller is sprawling in its ambitions, with three twining narratives, one set in 2003 in Las Vegas, another set in Venice in 1595 (featuring a former Ottoman janissary), and the third in Venice Beach, California in the 1958. It’s not easy to write historical fiction, let alone to easily pull it off when it weaves between the past and the present, never mind the challenge of a good suspense novel. That Martin Seay should take on both, while also tackling philosophical issues with three narratives is laudable, but in the end, his ambitions don’t match his present abilities.
The novel focuses on Curtis Stone, a Marine veteran sent to locate Stanley Glass, a man who, we learn in later sections, was a con artist as a teenager, who later becomes a skilled gambler with an obsession with a book with the same title as the novel. Young Stanley tracks down the author, Adrian Welles, and becomes obsessed with the cryptic book’s protagonist, Vettore Crivano. Crivano himself is the third narrator, set on a mission by the Haseki Sultan, a consort of the sultan with the authority of being second-in-command of the Empire, to bring glassmaking to the Ottoman Court.
The long, overflowing work is understandably close to 600 pages long, but it does drag at times, even with Seay’s often surprising use of words, with sentences like, “He remembers a beer bottle’s sweat beneath his fingers, the way everything seemed to be tipping over,” and phrases such as “Swirling the dregs of his third coffee, brown parabola lapping the bone-white rim.” “Parabola” feels excessive, but “lapping the bone-white rim” is well-crafted, and much of the novel’s language teeters from the exquisite to the mundane. Overall, there’s a deftness to so much of Seay’s writing, that one keeps on reading.
The key problems to the work is that his narratives of the past are far more compelling than the one set in 2003, and that Stanley’s and Crivano’s use of magic and the occult are never fully explained. Much like The Forty Rules of Love, but with much larger success, at times one wonders if the present narrative is really necessary at all. Curtis Stone, the ex-Marine turned cop and gun-for-hire, has his own difficult past that he carries with him, along with the trauma of war that Seay lets us see in an often overly-expositive way. At the start of the novel, the second Iraq War has just begun, and as Curtis gets ready to find Stanley he thinks,
the stuff [his wife] talks about – cover letters and résumés, community college classes, refinancing the mortgage – it all seems about a million miles removed form what he thinks of as reality. Six thousand miles, anyway. The fact that these are ordinary concerns for every functional adult just makes him feel worse. Still, he can’t shake the sense that there’s something inane, something thoughtless, in worrying over stuff like this while another war is coming on.
He’s never really adapted back to civilian life, from what one assumes was his time fighting in Afghanistan, a theme that comes up again and again, with each of the men this novel concerns: Stanley has never gotten over his father’s death in World War II and the subsequent break up of his family. Crivano has never gotten over the trauma of losing his family when he was taken as a child by the Ottomans to become a janissary, nor over the death of his best friend in battle. All three have become soldiers in their own way, and the only way to work through what they’ve become, Seay’s novel suggests, is to keep fighting and keep running.
Both Stanley’s and Crivano’s narratives are compelling, so much so that they are the glue of the novel. It isn’t that we don’t care about Curtis, but in a way it’s hard to care for him. He lacks the relationships that Stanley and Crivano have, and overall he often feels like a plot mechanism, rather than a living character.
The other problem with the novel is its central conceit, that there is something magical or occult about the book, The Mirror Thief, which becomes Stanley’s obsession. Mirrors themselves also begin to selectively feel haunted or like portals throughout the novel, but it’s hard to accept that magic is real for any of the characters, when the effects of the mirrors are inconsistent. The selective use feels more like an act at The Golden Spike than Penn and Teller.
Overall, The Mirror Thief is built on a flawed conceit of suspended belief in mysticism that is never explained in the end. Building up suspense and questioning what’s happening is certainly what’s interesting to write, but we never learn why is it that Crivano needs to get the mirror makers to Constantinople, or why Stanley needs to be found, or even if the effects of Stanley’s involvement with the occult rubs off on Curtis, just by proximity. This is certainly central to the novel’s mechanism, but like magic tricks in the real world, one either needs to convincingly play off the illusion or deliver the how of the artifice in the end. That’s the challenge of the game.
The Mirror Thief could easily be a film or a very solid novel in its own right, particularly with the high-suspense chase scenes throughout, but it doesn’t match up to its own noble aspirations. Seay has verve. There’s no question about that. He’s got a lot of sharp language to capture moments just so, and he’s got a head for writing about the past. His next novel will certainly be one to look out for, but his apprentice work doesn’t quite live up to its own potential.