Review of The Phoenix and the Mirror by Joanna Russ

Avram Davidson's THE PHOENIX AND THE MIRROR (Doubleday, $4.95) is an oddly dragging, sometimes fascinating book that ought to be a classic romance and is not. Mr. Davidson has created an entirely new never-world, that of Vergilian Rome as seen in medieval legends, a "backward projection of medievalism" in which the ancient world becomes half Dark Ages and wholly strange, and Vergil not a poet but a sorcerer. The background is extremely well realized, so much so that I doubt whether one reader in twenty will recognize the amount of research that has gone into it — I doubt if I recognize this myself. The novel is not simply an all-out fantasy world or an excuse for adventures; the magic in it is developed with awesome logic, and one of the climaxes of the book concerns the making of a mirror — constructing a furnace, crushing the ore, making the crucibles, and so on. Either you follow this patiently or you deserve to be shut up in a television set and forced to read Marvel comics until your brain turns to oatmeal. There are wonderful details: the mineral kingdom alone includes the terebolim, the male and female firestones whose mating produces an unquenchable conflagration, and the petromorphs, whose stony and venomous jaws love to crunch the coals of fires. Except for one hunting scene, which seems to have been introduced merely to show off too much medieval lore, none of this stuff is dull and most of it is first-rate. But something has gone wrong.

I thought at first to look for the difficulty in the characters, and these are indeed types — the Beautiful Maiden, the Bluff Friend, the Ambitious Bitch, the Gentle Monster, the Loyal Gutter Urchin — but typing has never been a bad thing in itself. In fact, the characters in the novel are not only vividly conceived, but almost always there is an extra twist — realistic or paradoxical or suddenly matter-of-fact — that makes them real people. It is all the more distressing to see these real people somehow forced into the role of puppets and made to populate a book that drags in spite of its splendid exoticism and the solidity of its background.

Perhaps the problem is in the plot. The book does not really have a plot, that is, an action in which self-motivated characters come into conflict with each other or something else through the pursuit of things they really want. What it has instead is an intrigue that never quite comes off (sometimes developments are too slow, sometimes too fast, often just arbitrary) and an intrigue needs a diabolus ex machina. One of the characters is pressed into service for this and is promptly ruined, although she has all sorts of potential (as do the others) for doing other things, if only it weren't for that damned plot. Mr. Davidson gives glimpses of the characters, looking rema