Reviewed in the United States on January 3, 2022
Don't mistake "young adult" for "fluffy." This story of brothers, orphaned early in life by a father whose abandonment of them without a word also cost them their mother to her grief, as they find the "Mirrorworld" that their father vanished into...inside his study!
This is a portal fantasy, with a secondary world that resembles our own enough to be an alternate-history world except for the fact that magic works. "Austry" is the name of the Mirrorworld country the brothers, and their father before him, arrive in, not the Austria they leave behind. The family's disintegration, as abetted by the mirror, is not something that the hero Jacob is trying to fix or to escape, like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time or the Pevensies in The Chronicle of Narnia. Jacob's a young adult, he fled into Mirrorworld to find a place for himself not look for someone else. Of course he finds others...a bad father-figure but a good mentor in Albert Chanute, innkeeper and treasure hunter in Austry, a girlfriend of sorts in Fox the shapeshifting...fox. He's got a life as a treasure hunter! He's met the Empress six times! (But don't tell Chanute that, he's only met her three times for treasure-hunting and now he's past it, so there'd be jealousy and trouble.)
The stakes this secondary world introduces to us could not be higher. Jacob's treasure-hunting ways are threatened by the Goyls, put a gar- in front and you'll get it, finally having effective leadership and thus starting to win battles in the eternal war between humans and their kind. What matters about that is that Will, Jacob's brother, has been bitten by a Goyl and is suffering the inexorable fate of such: He's turning into the stone creature that we call a Goyl but, since he's human, he won't survive the change. He will be a stone human...dead, but still walking without his soul. And Jacob, whose running away to find a life in this other world, now can't figure out how to save Will...and his refusal to share knowledge of Mirrorworld with Will is what left him susceptible to the bite in the first place. Oh! Wait! That's not enough pressure, not enough baggage. Will's utterly innocent girlfriend Clara finds the mirror and enters Mirrorworld, too!
Now, let me not spend more time in Spoilerville than is necessary. Will and Clara are serious Mary Sues. The world happens to them. They're not possessed of Jacob's trove of information...and this is something he quite rightly blames himself for not imparting to his adoring little brother. He spends just enough time recognizing that he's set these conditions in motion, and the success or failure of Will's future life among the living not-Goyls is entirely on him.
Celeste/Fox surprised me as a character. Will is younger than Jacob and he has a blah girlfriend, but Jacob's magical girlfriend is...a real full-bodied relationship partner! I wasn't thinking that would work in a kid-aimed story. But this, with its neither dwelt-on nor avoided sexuality and its frank presentation of bodily suffering...Chanute's arm is lost for a singularly stupid reason, for example, but it's before the story we're being told now starts, and is reported not experienced...is part of the not-quite-adult storytelling world. I'd give this to any sixteen-year-old and expect them to feel positive about it. Not younger, though. The consequences of stupid actions aren't minimized!
But sometimes, stupid people just can't be forced to stop being stupid. Clara simply can not be made to see what is completely obvious to the meanest intelligence: She is NOT in her own birth-world anymore and can NOT act like she's out for a particularly strange walk there! It gets wearing, her insistence that Jacob act as though her world's rules still hold sway. And he, fool of a man that he is, keeps explaining and explaining why her way won't work! Because she's unwilling to learn!
But Jacob...he's fighting through death and resurrection, he's fighting enemies he knows are enemies as well as friends he doesn't know are worse than enemies..."Who makes peace when you can have victory?" muses one such...Jacob fights until the fabric of Mirrorworld finally delivers him the thing he's consistently asked for, demanded, begged to receive. The thing he's died inside and out to cause to happen.
He's received the gift of an ending.
What a lovely way to make your portal fantasy pop! Make it such that there is no more severe betrayal that can occur to anyone in this world. Give everyone an ending. Then, stand back and watch the fun begin!
So perfect for its intended audience, so much in accord with the end-of-adolescence access of adult emotions but without the perspective to manage them. This should take the world by storm, and I hope it will.