Recent Reading: The Wrong Reflection by Gillian Bradshaw

I didn’t exactly make any New Year’s resolutions, but I did decide that one good thing to do this year would be to read some reasonable number of books on my physical TBR shelves. The Wrong Reflection was one of the more recent additions to those shelves, and since I generally really like Gillian Bradshaw’s books, I picked it up.

Here’s my initial take on this story:

Wow, this is a very intense, creepy psychological SF thriller.

Here’s my second take:

Are you sure Gillian Bradshaw wrote this?

So, Gillian Bradshaw has now joined the relatively short list of authors who have written a book that’s so entirely unlike their typical work that it’s hard to believe it’s by the same author.

Let me see … Seanan McGuire / Mira Grant is an author like this. Her UF InCryptid series is so different in tone, depth of worldbuilding, and particularly in the construction and style of sentences, from, say, her Newsflesh trilogy, that it seems quite incredible that the same person wrote both. If it were revealed that Seanan McGuire has multiple personalities and different personalities wrote these two series, I would actually believe that.

Who else? Let me see. Okay, Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark is very, very different from her space opera. Again, different right down to the level of sentences. In this case, that’s partly because The Speed of Dark is told in the first person by a narrator with a strong and distinctive voice, whereas her space opera is third person and told in a style that’s perfectly fine, but not nearly as distinctive. Also, The Speed of Dark is fundamentally a character study, while space opera is by definition a type of adventure story.

There have to be other authors in this category. For that matter, how about me? If you didn’t know I wrote Tuyo, but had read half a dozen or so of my other books, would you have recognized that as one of mine? Telling it in first person sets it apart, but how much?

[Oh, hey, as a side note, I see that Tuyo is now up to 50 reviews on Amazon as of this morning. Thank you to everyone who left a review; that’s a great number to hit, plus it’s nice that the rating seems to be steady at 4.7 stars. I’m going to apply for a BookBub ad as soon as Tarashana comes out, and I was hoping to be up to 50 reviews by then.]

So, anyway, not every author with a large backlist writes books with such different styles. I think Barbara Hambly is recognizable by how she handles characterization, particularly of minor characters, and by how she handles description, and by the way she puts sentences together. This is true no matter whether she’s writing fantasy, historical mysteries, or historical vampire novels. That’s why I realized that “Barbara Hamilton” was actually Barbara Hambly when I was about a quarter of the way through my first “Barbara Hamilton” mystery. CJC also has a clearly identifiable style — so does Patricia McKillip, obviously — so does Robin McKinley, even when she switches from third to first person. A lot of authors do.

So, back to The Wrong Reflection.

Gillian Bradshaw’s characteristic oeuvre consists of her historicals, particularly her historicals set in the Classical period. Those all contain a strong dose of romance. They bring the period to life with wonderful descriptive detail, they bring the characters to life with great writing, and imo the best of Bradshaw’s historicals are unbeatable in the genre.

Then she wrote the peculiar four-book fantasy series starting with Magic’s Poison, which starts off seeming quite generic and not that interesting and then turns suddenly into a character study of the development of a Great Man, the sort of person upon whom the age is going to turn. In those, the pov role is taken by subsidiary characters, with the actual protagonist seen only from the outside — a fascinating technique. I would not have known that Gillian Bradshaw wrote this series if her name hadn’t been on the cover.

Plus The Wrong Reflection.

This is a very creepy, intense psychological science fiction thriller. Some aspects of the writing and storytelling are characteristic of Bradshaw — the way in which she developed one of the characters (Jones) — is well done, and it’s done in a way very typical of Bradshaw’s work. The strong thread of romance is also typical. But the worldbuilding is not, and neither is the tight, claustrophobic intensity.

Here’s the setup: A woman rescues a guy from a car that has gone into a lake. The guy wakes up in the hospital. He is told his name is Paul Anderson. He feels viscerally that he is not Paul Anderson, but he does not remember anything about who he is. He shares essentially no characteristics with Paul Anderson, except physically he is definitely Paul Anderson. We go on from there.

I had trouble with this book. It hit my claustrophobia buttons. I sometimes have trouble when characters are trapped, depending on the exact situation. In fact, if the worldbuilding is handled in such a way that people in general are trapped, that can push me away from the story — again, it depends, but that is why I’ve only ever read Martha Wells’ City of Bones once. In The Wrong Reflection, Not-Anderson is trapped in a way that hits those buttons hard. Physically, he is extremely debilitated. Mentally, he has been stripped of his essential memory of himself. Socially, he is facing enemies much more powerful than he is. I was quickly drawn into the story, but halfway through, as unavoidable peril tightened around Not-Anderson, the situation became unendurable and I skipped ahead and read the last chapter. This is something I do only very rarely. Then I went back and just skimmed through the back half of the story and read the last chapter again.

So. Not sure what to say. If you are looking for a low-stress story in which nothing terrible happens, this is not the story for you. If creepy, intense psychological SF thrillers appeal to you, it definitely is.

I will add, the essential truth about Not-Anderson is probably not going to be a surprise to anyone who has read a significant amount of SF. Not only is it intrinsically obvious to the reader what has happened, it’s heavily foreshadowed. This is fine, at least for me, because although I enjoy surprising plot twists, I enjoy watching characters get to the denouement more, even if I know from the beginning where they are going. I don’t mind being right about Not-Anderson.

Final take on the book: The intensity of the story drew me right in. The writing is excellent. I loved the characters, especially Malcolm. I liked the development of the relationship between Sandra and Not-Anderson. I liked the ending, which is not a happy ending, but not not-happy either. But, fundamentally, this story is not for me. I’m counting it as finished rather than did-not-finish because I did at least skim through the whole thing and because I was not pushed away by any flaw in the story, but solely because it’s not the right story for me, at least not right now. For the right person, highly recommended.

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7 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Wrong Reflection by Gillian Bradshaw”

  1. I love Gillian Bradshaw. So different from Robert Graves or Mary Renault, but her characters are so lifelike! ‘We’ll have you speaking proper Latin yet!’ I see her influence in your books. In my opinion, Dangerous Notes is her best book outside of her usual genre. The use of music, as always draws me in as well.

  2. I’ve never read Bradshaw’s SF, partly bc I was worried about this: would her writing in another genre lose what I love most about her historical fiction? From your review this does sound like a very well-executed book, but almost certainly not for me.

  3. I haven’t read Dangerous Notes. I guess I should give that one a try.

    You know, Alison, I think you’re right. I can particularly see the influence of Island of Ghosts on Tuyo now that you mention that.

    Mary Beth, yes, it was kind of for me, maybe, in a different year, but just unendurable right now.

  4. The Toulonnese also owe something to Bradshaw’s Romans, particularly as seen in The Sand-Reckoner.

    I liked reading The Wrong Reflection just fine: guess I’m less claustrophobic than you are.

  5. Yes, the Tolounnese are definitely based on Bradshaw’s Roman Empire. Except the two emperor thing is different. If I ever write a third book, we will definitely meet the Great Emperor because I’m quite curious about him.

    As for The Wrong Reflection … I passed it to Dad, who also seems to like it just fine.

  6. The two emperors made me think of Roman Republic’s two consuls (or the Western & Eastern emperors in later Roman empire, maybe, except with more overlapping spheres). Really looking forward to seeing more in Sphere of Winds!

  7. Mary Beth, I have to admit I just threw in two emperors because it seemed like a neat thing to do. I would have to figure out more about their actual political roles if I wrote a third book!

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