Dangerous Women: “The Girl in the Mirror” (Excerpt)

Commissioned by editors George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, these tales of dangerous women by the most stellar names in fiction are publishing this autumn from Tor Books as a three-volume paperback!

Dangerous Women: Voume Two—available October 28th—includes stories by Lev Grossman, Sharon Kay Penman, S. M. Stirling, Sam Sykes, Caroline Spector, and Nancy Kress, as well as a new Outlander novel by Diana Gabaldon.

In “The Girl in the Mirror,” Lev Grossman takes us to Brakebills, an ancient, venerable school for wizards, one haunted by a thousand age-old traditions as well as spirits of a different kind, to show us that even the most innocent of pranks can end up having dangerous and even deadly consequences. Read an excerpt below, then join Stefan Raets for his review and analysis of the full story.

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You could say it all started out as an innocent prank, but that wouldn’t strictly be true. It wasn’t that innocent. It was just that Wharton was behaving badly, and in the judgment of the League he had to be punished for it. Then maybe he would cut it out, or behave a little less badly, or at the very least the League would have the satisfaction of having caused Wharton to suffer, and that counted for something. A lot really.

You couldn’t call it innocent. But you had to admit it was pretty understandable. And anyway, is there really any such thing as an innocent prank?

Plum was president of the League—unelected but undisputed—and also its founder. In enlisting the others she had presented the League as a glorious old Brakebills tradition, which it actually wasn’t, probably, though since the college had been around for something like four hundred years it seemed very likely to Plum that there must have been, at some point in the past, another League or at any rate something along the same lines, which you could count as a historical precedent. You couldn’t rule out the possibility. Though in fact she’d gotten the idea from a P. G. Wodehouse story.

They met after hours in a funny little trapezoidal study off the West Tower that as far as they could tell had fallen off the faculty’s magical security grid, so it was safe to break curfew there. Plum was lying full length on the floor, which was the position from which she usually conducted League business. The rest of the girls were scattered limply around the room on couches and chairs, like confetti from a successful but rather exhausting party that was thankfully now all but over.

Plum made the room go silent—it was a little spell that ate sound in about a ten-yard radius—and all the attention immediately focused on her. When Plum did a magic trick, everybody noticed.

“Let’s put it to a vote,” she said solemnly. “All those in favor of pranking Wharton, say aye.”

The ayes came back in a range of tones from righteous zeal to ironic detachment to sleepy acquiescence. This business of clandestine afterhours scheming could certainly take a whack at your sleep schedule, Plum had to admit. It was a little unfair on the others, because Plum was a quick study who went through homework like a hot knife through butter, and she knew it wasn’t that easy for all of them. From her vantage point on the floor, with her eyes closed, her long brown hair splayed out in a fan on the carpet, which had once been soft and woolly but which had been trodden down into a shiny hard-packed grey, the vote sounded more or less unanimous.

Anyway, there was fairly evidently a plurality in the room. She dispensed with a show of nays.

“It’s maddening,” Emma said in the silence that followed, by way of spiking the football. “Absolutely maddening.”

That was an exaggeration, but the room let it go. It’s not like Wharton’s crime was a matter of life and death. But a stop would be put to it. This the League swore.

Darcy sat on the couch opposite the long mirror with the scarred white frame that leaned against one wall. She toyed with her reflection—with both of her long, elegant hands she was working a spell that stretched it and then squished it, stretched, then squished. The technicalities were beyond Plum, but then, mirror-magic was Darcy’s specialty. It was a bit show-offy of her, but you couldn’t blame her. Darcy didn’t have a lot of opportunities to use it.

The facts of the Wharton case were as follows. At Brakebills, most serving duties at dinner were carried out by First Years, who then ate separately afterwards. But, by tradition, one favored Fourth Year was chosen every year to serve as wine steward, in charge of pairings and pourings and whatnot. Wharton had had this honor bestowed upon him, and not for no reason. He did know a lot about wine, or at any rate he seemed to be able to remember the names of a whole lot of different regions and appellations and whatever else. (In fact, another Fourth Year with the unintentionally hilarious name of Claire Bear had been tipped for wine steward this year. Wharton showed her up, coolly and publicly, by distinguishing between a Gigondas and a Vacqueyras in a blind tasting.)

But in the judgment of the League, Wharton had sinned against the honor of his office, sinned most grievously, by systematically short-pouring the wine, especially for the Fifth Years, who were allowed two glasses with dinner. Seriously, these were like three-quarter pours. Everybody agreed. For such a crime, there could be no forgiveness.

“What do you suppose he does with it all?” Emma said.

“Does with what?”

“The extra wine. He must be saving it. I bet he ends up with an extra bottle every night.”

There were eight girls in the League, of whom six were present, and Emma was the youngest and the only Second Year, but she wasn’t cowed by her elders. In fact, she was, in Plum’s opinion, even a bit too keen on the League and her role in same. She could have made just a little show of being intimidated once in a while. Plum was just saying.

“I dunno,” Plum said. “I guess he drinks it.”

“He couldn’t get through a bottle a night,” Darcy said. She had a big poofy 1970s Afro; it even had an Afro pick sticking out of it.

“He and his boyfriend, then. What’s his name. It’s Greek.”

“Epifanio.” Darcy and Chelsea said it together.

Chelsea lay on the couch at the opposite end from Darcy, her honey-blond head on the armrest, knees drawn up, lazily trying to mess up Darcy’s mirror tricks. Darcy’s spells were marvels of intricacy and precision, but it was much easier to screw up somebody else’s spell than it was to cast one yourself. That was one of the many small unfairnesses of magic.

Darcy frowned and concentrated harder, pushing back. The interference caused an audible buzz, and, under the stress, Darcy’s reflection in the mirror twisted and spiraled in on itself in weird ways.

“Stop,” she said. “You’re going to break it.”

“He’s probably got some set spell running that eats it up,” Emma said. “Has to feed it wine once a day. Like a virility thing.”

“Of course that’s where your mind would go,” Plum said.

“Well,” Emma said, flushing mauve—gotcha!—“you know. He’s so buff.”

Chelsea saw her moment and caused Darcy’s reflection to collapse in on itself, creepily, like it had gotten sucked into a black hole, and then vanish altogether. In the mirror it looked like she wasn’t even there—her end of the couch was empty, though the cushion was slightly depressed.

“Ha,” said Chelsea.

“Buff does not mean virile.”


Excerpted from Dangerous Women Vol. 2, “The Girl in the Mirror” © Lev Grossman


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