As it’s my birthday this week, I’m allowing myself time to read extra novels. High on my list of treats came the first volume in a new series – `The Chronoptika’ – by Catherine Fisher. `The Obsidian Mirror’  has been published as a  paperback and ebook in Britain but so far is only available as an ebook in America. Fisher is currently Young People’s Laureate for Wales but her fast-paced thought-provoking novels are popular with both children and adults. She has what I’d call a `smash and grab’ approach to inspiration, taking the best bits from various genres and cultures and putting them together to see what happens. In `The Obsidian Mirror’ she’s drawn on on Elizabethan sorcery and Victorian crime fiction and inserted the cruel faeries of British folk-beliefs into a time-travel plot. It shouldn’t work but I think it does.

The story begins when Jake Wilde gets himself expelled from boarding school so that he can confront his guardian, the famous explorer, Oberon Venn. Since the death of his wife, Venn has become a recluse but Jake blames him for the disappearance of his father, David. Teacher George Wharton accompanies Jake to Venn’s isolated country house, Wintercombe Abbey. They get a hostile reception from Venn but are welcomed by his `slave’ Piers who does all the jobs in this strange household. Meanwhile, Sarah, a girl who seems to come from a grim future, has arrived at Wintercombe pursued by a Time Wolf and by a Replicant who pretends to be a policeman. Venn lets Sarah stay because, after losing Jake’s father, he wants someone expendable  to use in his experiments with an ancient stone mirror that allows people to travel through time. The diaries of a Victorian scientist reveal that he stole the mirror from a scarred man in 1846, yet the same scarred man has followed Jake to Wintercombe. According to legend, Venn’s family has faery blood and the woodland around the abbey is ruled by a Faery Queen called Summer . Gideon, a human boy stolen by Summer centuries before , is desperate to escape from her but no-one seems willing to help him. When all these characters are thrown together and the dangerous mirror is activated there are violent clashes, narrow escapes,  startling revelations and painful betrayals.

This multi-stranded plot may sound complicated (and it is) but Fisher is a clever enough story-teller to hold everything together. Her opening scenes are always good but this one, in which Jake usurps the role of Hamlet in the school play, is particularly gripping.  Fisher is a mistress of the art of withholding information. She reveals what the reader needs to know about past and future events very gradually. If you don’t pay close attention you may miss some vital clue.  Every character comes with a set of intriguing questions. Who or what is Piers and why is he shadowed by seven black cats? What is the scarred man’s connection with the obsidian mirror and is he good or evil? Why has Sarah come back in time and what does she plan to do? You learn to query  everyone’s motives and even an apparently minor character, like the girl who gives Jake and Wharton a lift from the station, may turn out to be more than they seem.

Though the action rarely pauses, the characterization isn’t shallow. Several of the characters in this book have lost the people they love the most. Their pain comes across very strongly but so does the way that their personalities have been warped by grief and despair. Sarah is willing to conceal important truths and exploit new relationships in order to accomplish her mission. Jake is rude and inconsiderate towards those who are trying to help him because his desire for revenge on Venn has made him `sick to the soul’. By the end of  the story Jake is showing signs of unselfish concern for a child that he’s met but Venn is still locked into obsessive grief for the one woman he loved.  He is determined to use the mirror to bring her back from the dead, even after he is warned that this may have terrible consequences. `The Obsidian Mirror’ poses the big question we all have to ask ourselves at the moment – am I willing to make sacrifices now to help future generations?

I’ll finish this recommendation with two warnings. First, you might want to read this novel somewhere warm and cosy. Fisher doesn’t go in for long passages of description. Instead she uses her characters’ reactions to evoke her settings. In this story, people are always shivering, huddling up to lukewarm radiators or putting another log on the fire.   The cold damp decaying abbey surrounded by `a black and white kingdom of frost’ is the embodiment of winter. Second, `The Obsidian Mirror’ is only the first part of a continuing story. By the end of the book, startling new possibilities have opened up but nobody’s fate has been resolved. This may leave you, as it did me, stamping your foot and yelling, `I want the sequel and I want it now!’ Until next week…