This week I’m recommending a book which contains some of the most convincing magic in all of Fantasy fiction.`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ by Avram Davidson was originally published in America in 1966. Davidson, who died in 1993, was an erudite man who wrote in many different genres. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ was the first in his series of novels and short stories about the Roman poet Virgil, who was transformed in later tradition into a great mage and alchemist. This novel is available in paperback, on Kindle, or as an audio download. The `Fantasy Masterworks’ edition of `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ has a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts which suggests that this is a novel which deserves to be read at least three times.

The story is set in a version of Renaissance Europe which is still dominated by the Roman Empire. In the city of Naples, in a house guarded by a Brazen Head, lives Vergil Magus. After an expedition into the tunnels under Naples goes wrong, Vergil finds himself in the palace of the Dowager Queen Cornelia. He allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Cornelia who steals part of his soul. She will only give it back to him if Vergil succeeds in making her a virgin speculum, a magic mirror in which Cornelia can disover the whereabouts of her lost daughter, Princess Laura. Vergil has no choice but to agree, even though he knows that this is an almost impossible task.

With the aid of his jovial friend the alchemist Clemens, Vergil begins to assemble the materials he will need to forge the bronze mirror. They must have tin ore, but this is only found in the mysterious Tinland that lies somewhere beyond Tartis in the Great Dark Sea. Vergil visits the gloomy castle of  the Captain-Lord of the Tartismen, where he meets a Phoenician sea-farer known as the Red Man. After he saves the life of the Captain-Lord, Vergil is promised some tin-ore, but to obtain pure copper ore he will have to get to Cyprus, which is `cut off by the ships of the fierce Sea-Huns.’ The Red Man agrees to take Vergil in his own ship. Guided by strange dreams and the ravings of a madwoman, the Magus sets off on a dangerous voyage. When he reaches Cyprus, a place of rival cults and dark secrets, his problems only increase. Even when Vergil has all the materials he needs to make the magic mirror, questions remain. Is Princess Laura truly lost? What does Cornelia really want and who is the Red Man?

`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ is a short novel packed with original ideas and fascinating details. Reading this book is rather like eating a small slice of chocolate cake and finding that it fills you up because of its rich ingredients. Davidson was a master of the Fantasy and Science Fiction short story so perhaps it isn’t surprising that his novels tend to be rather episodic. My brief summary may have made the plot of `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ sound straightforward. It isn’t. The plot veers off in unexpected directions and there are stories within stories, some of them left tantalizingly open-ended. If Davidson’s work isn’t as popular as it should be, this may be because he seems to have taken an impish delight in breaking the normal rules of good story-telling and baffling his readers.

`The Phoenix and the Mirror’ begins excitingly with a man lost in a maze being chased by manticores `like great bloated weasels, hair a reddish yellow..and shaggy as goats, eyes bulging and glowing and rolling every way, showing an intelligence…far more than merely animal.’ However, it rapidly becomes less clear exactly what is going on. Mysteries are raised about Vergil and his mission which are never explained away. The reader has to guess what kind of man Vergil is from small clues scattered throughout the book. Even Vergil himself doesn’t seem to know. There are puzzling gaps in the time-line and important things sometimes appear to have happened between the scenes. The pace of the narrative is considerably slowed down by learned digressions: lectures on alchemy and metallurgy (dismissed by Clemens as `tedious recapitulation of details known to every apprentice’), strange anecdotes about past events, and a wealth of information about magical texts and objects. Sometimes you may wish that Davidson would just get on with the story, but if you skip the apparent digressions you could miss something vital. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ is a page-turner, but you will often be turning the pages backward, to try and make sense of what you are reading. I probably ought to disapprove of this novel but I was won over by its eccentric characters – such as Dame Allegra, the ultimate in crazy cat-ladies, or Tildas, a Shaman who has been turned into a bear – and by all the mind-boggling background detail.

The title of one of Davidson’s other books – `Adventures in Unhistory’ could also apply to this one. Vergil is a citizen of an Empire that is part of the Great Economium but don’t expect helpful maps and family trees and appendices full of potted history. The reader is bombarded with references to deities and doges, temples and castles, tribes and kingdoms, and left to make sense of it all. The Renaissance seems to be in full swing but there is still an Emperor in Rome who uses the title of August Caesar – or there would be if he hadn’t run off to Avignon with his new girlfriend.  In this Roman empire, most of the religions of the Ancient World are still flourishing, magic and proto-science are hard to distinguish and monsters from Classical myth (a four-armed cyclops) and medieval Bestiaries (a blood-orange eating gargoyle) co-exist. Davidson obviously did an enormous amount of research and then picked out his favourite bits from a multitude of cultures and jumbled them together. This may not be the most logical approach but it makes for a very colourful fictional world. Horse-Jewelers Street, where Vergil lives, comes vividly alive, with its traders in beads and bells to ward off the Evil Eye, its Fountain of Cleo where women gather to fill their water-jars, its noisy wine-shop, the Sun and Wagon, the hut of rubble and rushes where Dame Allegra lives with her `covey of cats’ and the evening smells of wood-smoke, fish, oil and garlic.

Talking heads made of bronze, like the one by Vergil’s front door, were said to have been owned by many famous philosophers and magicians. This is just one indication that Davidson knew a great deal about the history of magic. As I know from my own research (see `Magic in Ancient Egypt’ by Geraldine Pinch) real-world magic required a lot more effort than simply waving a wand and shouting a few Latin words. Spells usually involved assembling a range of bizarre ingredients and performing ritual actions at propitious times, as well as speaking the right words in the appropriate language.  All this is portrayed in the immensely complex process of making the magic mirror, right up to finding blind men to do the final burnishing because only the first person to look in the finished mirror can use it to see whatever they desire. The cost of using magic is shown to be high. There is a chilling scene in which Vergil reluctantly uses an homunculus made from a mandrake root – `it might have been the tiniest of mummies ever seen’ to sniff out a wind.  He barely stops its fatal scream in time, is left with a `gray and purulent spot’ on one finger and knows that he must never perform that spell again. Throughout the book, Davidson reminds the reader that alchemy wasn’t just about turning base metals into gold; it was a search for hidden meanings and ultimate truths. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’ suggests that the same can be true of Fantasy fiction. There were two sequels, `Vergil in Averno’ and `The Scarlet Fig, or Slowly Through the Land of Stone”, but don’t expect a continuous story. Davidson didn’t write conventional Fantasy trilogies, or conventional anything. `The Phoenix and the Mirror’  may either  infuriate or delight you. Surely it’s worth finding out which? Until next week…