It’s been a hot minute since I went on blog review hiatus. I’m still working on catching up on my review backlog and regular reviews are not back yet. However, I read a book with a monthly book club this month that I felt deserves more discussion than a quick paragraph on Goodreads. I didn’t think I could review the book fairly unless I went through my full rubric and looked at the different facets of it individually. Before I get into the review, I want to give some backstory. I think the context in which these opinions were formed is important.
Some of you who hang out in the same Twitter spaces as myself may be aware of some hiccups with the launch of Cat Bowser’s debut novel, Mirrors & Ashes. It was brought to Cat’s attention after release day that the book contained, well, more errors than we would have expected. “We” in this context refers to the indie author-reader community and the book club I take part in. Cat discovered that the wrong files were being distributed–we all had a copy of the book prior to proofreading at a minimum, possibly copyediting.
Now, this sort of thing is pretty much every indie author’s worst nightmare. I should know. This happened to me with Saving the Dragon back in 2015. I just didn’t know it for a long time (yikes). I wasn’t plugged into a fantastic online community of other indies who could reach out and gently let me know my ass was showing. Thankfully, the community had Cat’s back on this one. As such, many of us held off writing reviews until we had the edited version in our hands.
And that brings me to the review. Cat is an active and wonderfully supportive member of the writing community. I consider her a friend, and I’ve been hyped for this book for months, so I knew going into it that I was going to need to temper my potential bias. Even so, I didn’t expect it to be the struggle it turned out to be. As far as I can tell, my strongest issues with the book remain in the edited version of the text. I’ll get into what those are in the “Writing” section of the review.
For reference, the copy I read was from the Barnes & Noble pre-order, which I compared with the current version available on Kindle Unlimited.
Mirrors & Ashes is a fantasy novel released on April 27, 2022. It can be purchased in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It is available in ebook form from Amazon and can be read with Kindle Unlimited. The paperback edition is 354 pages. I am unaware of any plans for an audio release.
About the Author
Cat Bowser is a debut indie fantasy author from Arizona. She lives with her husband and their two dogs. She is a licensed associate counselor and is greatly interested in psychology and human relationships. You can find her on Twitter and on her website.
The exterior is a gorgeous cover designed by Rebecca Kenney. Anyone who follows my blog knows I’m a Rebecca Kenney stan. Still, I usually have something to nitpick in every cover I review. So here goes: I really wish the font on the spine was bigger or had thicker lines. That’s it. That’s my only complaint. Otherwise, I really just love this cover and think it’s perfect as it is. 5/5.
The interior is also really nice. Nicole Scarano did an excellent job with the formatting. The chapter headings art by Elisha Bugg is beautiful. I’m familiar with the interior formatter’s work, but I believe this is the first I’ve seen from this artist. I look forward to seeing more from both of them in the future. 5/5.
(I didn’t have anything to link for Elisha Bugg, but if anyone knows a website or Patreon or something I can link, please let me know).
I have been hyped for this book since I first heard about it on Twitter. I adore the idea of a Snow White-ish retelling that leaves the princess with her personal agency. The idea of the kingdom being taken over by an outside force conspiring with the wicked queen is also fantastic because it builds much higher stakes than the original tale. So yes, it’s a fairytale retelling, but 5/5 on the premise.
The queen and fae are basically caricatures. I would have loved more development on both of them. The fae is evil because fae are evil isn’t really compelling. It’s almost… played out.
In a similar vein, I really wanted more exploration queen’s obsession with the lost kingdom. Why she felt that she specifically was entitled to it was not clear. I also would have liked us to see more of the queen interacting with Ember in real-time. Most of the abuse Ember suffered was told in flashback and fell kind of flat for me in the big showdown. I think this choice also left me without important context for some of Ember’s thought processes throughout the story.
And that brings me to my biggest issue with characters. I wasn’t super attached to Ember. I think her grief was the thing I connected with her most on, and that was mainly because it invoked a very specific life experience for me. I didn’t get to see enough of her parental relationships to really have an investment in them. The story also jumped right into her relationships with the dwarves. I wish I’d had more of a chance to explore that prior to the exodus from the castle as well. The later time skip didn’t do this development any favors either. I really, really wanted to see Ember and Tyr grow together from friends to a couple and that was… skipped.
I really enjoyed the dwarven characters. Frigga and Tyr were both great and, frankly, the only stable people among the prominent cast members. I just wish it had given me a better foundation for their relationships with Ember at the beginning of the story. 3/5
The world of Mirrors & Ashes has a lot to offer. The descriptions of the dwarves’ underground kingdom was fascinating. The effect of fae magic on Ember’s kingdom was terrifying. There seemed to be a lot of rich lore peeking through the pages. 4/5
There was certainly enough plot to keep me moving forward at the beginning of the book. Some of the middle was kind of muddy to me from a plot standpoint. I think that was largely due to the time skip. Still, other factors carried the story enough to keep me engaged.
I would argue that we got to the expulsion from the kingdom almost too quickly. That combined with the time jump created some pacing problems for me. As explained above, I would have preferred more set-up to the relationships and conflicts between the characters early on.
Still, the plot had a few twists I thought were interesting and the ending was satisfying. 3/5
While reading Mirrors & Ashes I encountered something I don’t experience very often: I struggled to read this book in places. And I don’t mean that I found it boring, or the pacing was slow. I mean that I struggled with the actual act of reading. A lot of sentences were confusing, or at least complicated enough to slow me down significantly. I am normally a very quick reader with high reading comprehension. I don’t say this to brag, but to point out that if I am struggling to read something, the problem likely is that the text is, in fact, difficult to read.
Complaining about readability is a bit of a hot button topic in indie spaces. “The editing is crap” or “there were so many errors I couldn’t read this” are accusations commonly thrown out to discredit self-published books. So, I spoke with other readers on the subject to make sure I wasn’t crazy and that my impression of the readability was not way off base. The conclusion I’ve reached is that yes, this book is at times difficult to read and that may turn off some readers.
I am usually very forgiving of mistakes in books because everyone in the process is human. You’re going to have a typo slip in or an odd comma once in a while. Don’t make me go pull traditionally published examples off my shelf to prove this point. I have given 5 stars to books with minor mistakes and an awkward sentence or two in them. I don’t believe that technical perfection is a requirement to write an amazing book, full stop.
Having said all of that, it is my opinion that this book should have gone through another round of edits. I don’t want the author’s style to be lost, but reworking the most confusing sentences would go a long way towards improving readability. If her editor did not point out the frequency of overly complex and/or awkward sentences in this text, that editor did her a disservice.
Despite the issues addressed above, I found the writing to be descriptive and the dialogue entertaining. 2/5.
Final Thoughts: 3.5/5
I loved the themes in this book. They include powerful topics such as found family; healing from trauma; confronting and cutting off toxic influences in your life; and rebuilding yourself as your own person after abuse. There’s so much goodness crammed into this book and juxtaposed with some of humanity’s worst tendencies.
It kills me that I can’t give this book a glowing 5/5 review. I genuinely enjoyed the story and the world Cat has built. However, I feel that with the difficulties I had, giving that perfect, glowing review would cause more harm than being honest. While I greatly enjoyed the book, and think it is absolutely worth reading, I do not want to send readers its way that will be extremely bothered by the editing. That’s a recipe for unpleasant and unfair reviews.
I sincerely hope that the author will continue to write and that her next launch will be less fraught. My hopes for her next book remain high despite my frustration with this one.