Anna-Marie McLemore’s latest young adult novel transports Hans Christien Anderson’s The Snow Queen to San Juan Capistrano, an old town on the Southern California coast. It’s best known for its Spanish mission, which kept thousands of Acjachemen within its stone walls between its founding in 1776 and secularization in 1833, and the annual cliff swallow migration. Tourists come from all over to celebrate the birds’ arrival, and it’s against this backdrop that McLemore set their story.
Content warning for discussion of sexual assault.
At a high school party over the summer, two teens are sexually assaulted. Ciela was awake, but Lock, the new boy in town, was drugged into unconsciousness. When they meet again in the fall, Lock has no memory of what happened to him, only the knowledge that his body had been used against his will. Ciela, however, knows all too well what happened, and all she wants to do is forget. The more she tries to compartmentalize the events of that terrible night, the more she begins to fracture. Her magical gift for knowing the perfect pan dulce for each customer at the family pastelería disappears. Around town, neighborhood trees are vanishing overnight while other objects begin turning into sharp pieces of mirrored glass.
As Lock and Ciela get to know each other, they find commonality in their trauma, even as Ciela keeps the truth about their assaults from him. She is not yet ready to do what Lock learned in therapy: face the truth. Desperate to find the girl she was before, Ciela hides that night away alongside the mirrored objects, both shoved deep into the darkness where no one else can see them. But, as Ciela learns, you cannot move on from trauma until you confront it, a process made infinitely harder when your attackers are rich, white, and popular. Lock may be a white cis het boy, but he’s poor and unprotected by a social safety net. Ciela, on the other hand, is a brown, curvy, queer Latina whose only friend graduated a year early. Ciela and Lock need each other, but in different ways. Ciela makes Lock feel like a person who isn’t defined by something someone else did to him, while Lock makes Ciela feel like if she holds on tight enough she can sacrifice herself to protect him.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy book to read. Nor is it a book for everyone. Some readers will have no trouble at all, some will have to work up the emotional bandwidth first, others won’t be able to engage with it at all, and some will read it like I did, in bits and pieces and with the comfort of my pets and other distractions to break up the stress. (Even writing this review took longer than normal because I needed to keep stepping away and decompressing.)
I don’t normally read books where sexual assault (or child or animal abuse) are major plot points. It hits my triggers in ways I, like Ciela, am uncomfortable speaking about. Despite knowing what The Mirror Season was about, I still chose to read it. More specifically, I needed to read it. I knew that if I was going to read a book about sexual assault, McLemore would be one of the few authors I’d be okay with writing it because they could handle it in a sensitive yet earnest way. And, like Ciela, I knew that I needed to process my own stuff and sometimes it’s easier to do that with a trusted confidante. I didn’t leave The Mirror Season free of my own mirror shards—no book could be expected to do that kind of work—but I have a new way to think about myself and new words to add to my still-forming ideas.
The Mirror Season would not be an Anna-Marie McLemore book if it didn’t also blend conversations about gender identity and queerness and resisting the patriarchy and white supremacy with magical realism. This book hits those first points hard. That Ciela does not nor cannot conform to the social standards set by the popular kids is what drives them to want to break her. Her deviation makes her a target and her resistance makes her vulnerable, as it does all who are marginalized, especially those of us with intersectional identities.
If you’re familiar with their work, you already know how exceptionally talented McLemore is at balancing all of those heavy topics with the surreal and unexpected awe of magical realism. “Magical realism” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, often inaccurately, but McLemore does it right and oh so well. What Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez brought to adult literature, McLemore has brought to young adult. Each infuses their worlds with inescapable truths, layers of meaning, and a twist of the fantastic.
The word “trauma” also gets a lot of play in reviews. Every story it seems is about “trauma,” no matter how nebulously that trauma or its aftermath is depicted. It would be easy to say that Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Mirror Season is about trauma, but it goes beyond that. It’s about two acts of violence and the ways in which trauma spirals out from perpetrator to victim to everyone else around them. But it’s also about how we process, how we pick up the pieces, and the choices we make, both good and bad, to survive.
The Mirror Season may not be for everyone, but for those who need it, I hope it makes you feel less alone. You are not a reflection of your former self trapped in a broken mirror. You are a person, you are seen, and you can pick up the pieces of yourself and become whole again.
The Mirror Season is available from Feiwel & Friends