The Phoenix and the Mirror, written by Avram Davidson and published in 1966, is based on the medieval legend that the poet Vergil (The Aeneid) was a mage and sorcerer. Queen Cornelia of Carsus has taken hostage part of Vergil’s soul. This leaves him feeling like less than a full man — he’s unmotivated and impotent. Though some of his parts don’t work too well, Vergil’s brain still works fine, so he sets out to meet Cornelia’s demand: manufacture a virgin speculum so Cornelia can scry the whereabouts of her kidnapped daughter, Laura.
It’s not too easy to make a magic mirror, even for an ancient and powerful sorcerer like Vergil. His first task is to acquire tin and copper ore that has never been used before, but this is difficult in a time when the Sea Huns are prowling the waters and controlling trade. Even if he can get all the materials he needs, the actual construction is an extremely precise and delicate alchemical operation.
Luckily, Vergil has several allies: his colleague Clemens, who’s like a walking encyclopedia; a crew of students and apprentices who do most of Vergil’s laboratory work; a mysterious Phoenician who is willing to guide him in his travels; a strange woman who dispenses advice and prophecies as she feeds her cats; and a down-and-out Sea-Hun king who can be bribed with the promise of worshipping Aphrodite in her temple of beautiful priestesses.
Avram Davidson uses the backdrop of Vergil’s quest to fill The Phoenix and the Mirror with some real geography, history, and science, and plenty of richly-detailed bits of medieval legends, fantastical creatures, alchemical instructions, and astrological divinations. Thus, you’ll meet a cyclops, a gargoyle and a homunculus along with Roman soldiers and Sea-Huns and you’ll learn the exact techniques for the construction of magical mirrors.
The Phoenix and the Mirror is beautifully written and gently and delightfully humorous, too, as Vergil and Clemens playfully stab each other with their witty banter and as Vergil manipulates his intellectual inferiors with his subtle persuasive techniques. The book begins with Vergil being chased by manticores through the sewers of Naples, and it ends with a surprise and a twist, but the middle of the book bogs down with too many details about Vergil’s travels and the construction of the mirror.
Intriguing questions about Vergil remain — Where did he come from? How old is he? What are his powers? What was he searching for in the sewers? I hope these will be answered in the sequel: Vergil in Averno.