The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror

Back in the summer I read a wonderful novel called Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey. I loved it and was swept away by Melissa’s ability to create atmosphere and such a vivid sense of place – you can read my review here. I loved it so much that I (maybe a little cheekily!) asked Melissa if she’d send me a copy of her first book. Well she did, and I’m so very glad because I loved this one too. Check out the cover above – that in itself rang a whole lot of my bells. Doesn’t it just invite you in?

So what’s it about?

‘I have heard, but not believed, the spirits of the dead may walk again…’

A hidden room

When architect Johnny Carter is asked to redesign a long-abandoned Victorian shoe factory, he discovers a hidden room deep in the basement. A dark, sinister room, which contains a sixteenth-century Venetian mirror.

A love in danger

Johnny has a new love, Ophelia, in his life. But as the pair’s relationship develops and they begin to explore the mystery surrounding the mirror, its malign influence threatens to envelop and destroy them.

A secret history

The mirror’s heritage dates back to the sixteenth century, and the figure of Catherine de Medici – betrayed wife, practitioner of the occult, and known as the Black Queen.

The Medici Mirror is a haunting story of jealousy, obsession, and murder, perfect for fans of Kate Mosse and Barbara Erskine; a story about the ability of the past to influence the present and of love’s power to defeat even the most powerful of curses.

This is another novel with an incredible sense of place. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the old, derelict shoe factory with all its machinery and materials still in situ. I could almost smell the dust and leather and was just as keen as the protagonists to see it brought back to life. But nothing lies dormant for decades without accumulating its fair share of secrets and this factory is no different.

From the very beginning the reader realises that this narrative will be split. It opens with Catherine de Medici and her concerns regarding her husband’s affair before moving to the modern day and Johnny’s story. Johnny is at a vulnerable stage in his life and very early on meets the somewhat mysterious love interest, Ophelia – who happens to be a fashion photographer specialising in shoes. As the two of them and Johnny’s beautiful colleague Tara start to dig away at the history of the factory you just can’t help but want to know how the two eras will be linked. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to point out the significance of the mirror in the title at this point…

The narrative deftly switches between Contemporary London, Victorian London and 1540’s France bringing in some incredible historical detail which Melissa must have spent considerable time researching. I love novels which lead me off on a ‘Google tangent’ and this had me looking up Victorian shoes, Venetian mirrors and the story of Catherine de Medici and her husband (the King of France) in more detail.

Melissa writes strong, female characters particularly well but all the characters in this novel are well-rounded, if flawed – as they should be. The story is excellently plotted with a very satisfying ending – a compelling mix of murder, passion, intrigue and the supernatural. It’s a ghost story in the vein of my favourite Victorian ghost stories; eerie, spooky and chilling rather than terrifying but no less accomplished because of that. It’s gripping and smart – and unbelievably, a debut novel. A perfect read to curl up with on a winter’s evening. Thank you so much Melissa! I can’t wait for book number three.

Go on, treat yourself: The Medici Mirror

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Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey

Beyond the Sea

‘The power of the sea always prevails…’

Once in a while, the right book comes along at just the right time. On holiday in the South of Wales surrounded by stunning countryside and views of the sea was the perfect setting in which to lose myself in this wonderful novel.

So what’s it about?

One summer’s day, Freya’s husband and son vanish at sea.

A year on, and struggling to cope, Freya returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on a remote Hebridean island, where she and her family spent so many happy times.

Haunted by visions of her old life, Freya’s dreams are dark and disturbed. And when a stranger, Daniel, is washed ashore during a storm, they turn even more menacing.

As dream and reality start to merge, Daniel seems to be following Freya’s every move. What does he want from her and is he everything he seems to be?

Is her mind playing tricks? Or is the danger that she senses very real?

On the one hand this is a poignant story of love, loss and grief which is set beautifully against the wild, untamed backdrop of the Hebridean Islands. Melissa Bailey’s masterful descriptions of her setting transported me right there with Freya from the very beginning: ‘The shingle beaches, the wild machair, the glistening burns catching the sunlight as they drained to sea’.

But this is no simple one-dimensional tale. The descriptions of Freya’s grief are raw and true. Her story is also interwoven both with extracts from her son’s diary which she finds on her return to the Island and also with that of Edward, one of Cromwell’s soldiers whose love letters from 1653 come to light (in a bottle – of course!). Through Sam’s diary she comes to learn more about his last days and in being able to read his words and hear his voice, she begins both a literal and metaphorical journey of healing: ‘She knew in that moment that if the diary told of other places Sam and Jack had been to, she would follow’.

Sam was fascinated with all things nautical – particularly myths and legends about the sea and shipwrecks. Such mythical references and folklore regarding mermaids, sirens and much more are scattered liberally throughout this novel – stories I found just as fascinating as Sam.

Reading Edward’s letters also seems to have a cathartic effect on Freya and adds to the magic of the story. He writes that: ‘The more I hear these tales… and Duncan speaking with such reverence about the air, the water, the unexplained miracles of these isles, the more I feel he believes that we have entered a magical kingdom’. His references to the blind old man who he felt could see ‘deep inside me’ just have to be considered alongside Freya’s friend, Torin. I think I fell a tiny bit in love with Torin in the same way I fell a tiny bit in love with Gandalf. He even has a Dwarvish kind of name! Torin has second sight and as he stares at Freya ‘she felt herself becoming as transparent as a pane of glass’. This is just one example of the symmetry of the novel which I found so very satisfying.

This is a hauntingly beautiful, gentle, novel but with such depth that it has stayed with me long after I put it down. It was a perfect summer read for me but I can just as easily imagine reading it curled up in front of a roaring fire on a cold, winter’s evening. Without a doubt, one of my favourite reads of 2015 so far. Huge thanks to Melissa Bailey.

‘I looked at the impenetrable darkness of the water once more. It was like a veil drawn over the past’.

Beyond the Sea is available on kindle: Beyond the Sea

Or paperback: Beyond the Sea