April 24, 2016

Ilsa J. Bick: "Dark Passages" (Series Review)

Hardcover and Kindle
Title: White Space [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: Dark Passages (1st of 2 books)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Metafiction, Multiverse, Horror, Supernatural
Year: 2014
Age: 14+
Stars: 5/5
Pros: Different, exciting, engrossing - an outrageous kick in the butt of "regular" fiction, which is, at the same time, a love letter to it.
Cons: May sound confusing to some. Truncated chapter endings and suspense may drive the reader a little mad sometimes.
WARNING! High level of gore and horror (also of the psychological kind).
Will appeal to: Metafiction and multiverse enthusiasts. Patient, fearless readers, ready to engage with a nonlinear story.

Hardcover, Kindle and paperback (this is an edit. Paperback came out in 2017)

Title: The Dickens Mirror [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: Dark Passages (2nd of 2 books)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Metafiction, Multiverse, Horror, Supernatural
Year: 2015
Age: 14+
Stars: 5/5
Pros: Different, exciting, engrossing - an outrageous kick in the butt of "regular" fiction, which is, at the same time, a love letter to it.
Cons: May sound confusing to some. Truncated chapter endings and suspense may drive the reader a little mad sometimes. All the different versions of the same characters and/or characters at different age stages may frustrate those who like step-by-step narrative.
WARNING! High level of gore and horror (also of the psychological kind).
Will appeal to: Metafiction and multiverse enthusiasts. Patient, fearless readers, ready to engage with a nonlinear story. Readers who like alternative history and steampunk (though I'm using the term in an oblique way here).

Blurb for White Space: Seventeen-year-old Emma Lindsay has problems: a head full of metal, no parents, a crazy artist for a guardian, and all those times when she blinks away, dropping into other lives as if the story of her life bleeds into theirs. Then she writes "White Space", a story about kids stranded in a spooky house during a blizzard. Unfortunately, "White Space" turns out to be a dead ringer for part of an unfinished novel by a long-dead writer, in which characters fall out of different books and jump off the page. Before long, Emma is dropped into the very story she thought she'd written. Trapped in a weird, snow-choked valley, she meets other kids with dark secrets and strange abilities. What they discover is that they - and Emma - may be nothing more than characters written into being from an alternative universe for a very specific purpose. Now what they must uncover is why they've been brought to this place - a world between the lines where parallel realities are created and destroyed and nightmares are written - before someone pens their end. (Amazon excerpt)

Blurb for The Dickens Mirror: Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead or lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up - or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma to emerge as the dominant personality...because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror. But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can't find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows - what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages - will die with her. (Amazon excerpt) 

Review: As a rule, I don't do series review. I'm a firm believer in the fact that each and every book has its own unique personality. The only exception to my rule so far has been my Justine Duval series review (for reasons stated in the post itself). Now, I was taking notes for my future White Space and The Dickens Mirror separated reviews, when I realised that most of the things I had to say about one of them could apply to the other as well. This doesn't mean that the two books are overly similar...but they share the same DNA in a way that makes it impossible for me to review the second installment without repeating myself. So here goes...
(Please note: I'm going to break my review in parts, since there are so many layers and angles to this series, not to mention the HUGE page count that provides so many points to dwell on...Also, sorry for the lack of gifs, but after a not-so-brief search I called it a day. It takes long enough for me to write actual reviews).


The first time I heard about White Space was when I found it on some list on Goodreads (well, that's how I find most of my books, so nothing notable here). I'm not sure if the original blurb read like this exactly, but if not, it was the almost-twin of the one from the inside front cover:
A seventeen-year-old girl jumps between the lines of books and into the white space where realities are created and destroyed - but may be herself nothing more than a character written into being from an alternative universe.
Wow. Say it again.
It was precisely my kind of story.
Now, an awesome blurb has never prevented me from crossing a book out of my TBR list. You know, I pay a lot of attention to reviews. I even compare my books with the reviewers' on Goodreads, in order to understand if our tastes are similar enough that I'm likely to react to that particular novel the same way they did. (Yeah, I know. Sue me LOL). The number of mixed reviews that White Space (and later, The Dickens Mirror) sported was impressive, to say the least. As usual, I was concentrating on the lower ratings first. And it's funny how the more of them I read, the more I was convinced I HAD to buy the book. DNF's and low ratings only wetted my appetite for it. I kept thinking "this is precisely why I WILL enjoy this novel...what didn't work for these people, I'll love". As crazy as it sounds, I ended up having FAITH in this book - like it couldn't fail me. So, when - after a long time - I was able to place my usual international book order, I bought both WS and its sequel together, and it was written in stone for me that I would adore them. Which proved to be true.


After reading the series, I went in search of its origin story. I want to share it with you before I start with my actual review, because it might help you get into the right mind frame to understand what these books are about. If you are interested, Bick discusses a few of her novels in this thread. (Please pay particular attention to Message 11, from which I'm quoting below). As for Dark Passages - the short version? After a funny family incident (also mentioned in the thread I linked to above), Bick found herself wondering:
...what if you put in too much real life into a book or character? What happens to the fabric of the story? What's going on between the lines or chapters that we don't see? If you infuse enough reality into a character...does that character even know it's a fiction? How do YOU know you're not a character in someone else's narrative?
This, coupled with a fascination with movies like The Matrix, started a whole course of thoughts which ultimately caused Bick to write this fabulous series.
BTW, Dark Passages was supposed to be a trilogy, but after Book 1 came out, Egmont USA was in a dire spot - so Bick's editor asked her to wrap the story in two books. The original idea was to have the third installment play out on an alternate Devil's Island, on Lake Superior.
I also wish to mention that this series reminded me of an old Italian book by Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author - because of the whole character-coming-alive theme. I don't have any clue if Bick has read it and used it as a source of inspiration somehow.
OK - onto the real review now...yes, because all this was only a prologue. Just your luck ;).


I'm a huge fan of multiverses. Too bad it's so hard to please me in the field, like this page testifies. Usually, characters travel from a version of themselves to another without any continuity to be seen. Maybe a character loses her son and becomes an alcoholic in one of those words, while she copes and joins a support group in another. There's no way I can buy the drastic split. Well, nothing of that happens in WS or TDM. While the characters live completely different lives in completely different realities, their basic traits remain the same. Their essence doesn't change. Also, they are somehow in touch with their doubles' realities (not going to spoil how it happens). All is masterfully and flawlessly woven.


Metafiction - another device that is so hard to pull off. I remember an old TV series called Moonlighting (starring a very young Bruce Willis). It kept breaking the fourth wall, and every time I mostly found myself annoyed (of course ML was first and foremost a comedy, but that’s beside the point…). Out of the blue, the characters were discussing their very life as characters, or directly addressing the audience. The show might have been ahead of its time, but still I didn't enjoy the way it was played out. The Dark Passages duology breaks the fourth wall too, but it never actually WINKS at the reader, nor do the characters…they’re never like "hey reader, this is a story, we know we’re not real and kind of find it funny"*. If anything, they desperately hold on to their own reality, never questioning its core. On one hand they understand being someone else's creation, but on a deeper level, they FEEL real. This is the main difference between WS-TDM and More Than This by Patrick Ness - that I read a while ago and haven't gotten round to review yet, for the sole reason that I'm not sure how I feel about it...or how I should feel. In More Than This, I assume that - basically - the main character fabricates his own reality, all the while doubting his own existence (I said "assume", because really, I've read it three times and I STILL DON'T KNOW). Bick's kids have doubts and nightmares who become real and flashes of different worlds where their doubles live and proof that someone has written their own stories, and still they soldier on and feel (are) SO alive. SO real. I never felt detached from them, not once. ANY version of them. What more do you need from a bunch of book people?
*(Just for the sake of accuracy - the author DOES wink at the reader in The Dickens Mirror, and even inserts herself in the story at one point. But it's so appropriate and well done, not to mention fun, I welcomed it wholeheartedly).


I used to be chicken in the old days. It's not like I scare easily...but horror - as in, gore - was never my thing. And though I've come a long way from there, I confess still having issues with Stephen King's brand of horror. However, both WS and TDM don't spare the reader anything, from nightmarish imagery to psychological horror, and I devoured them. If the series were made into a movie, maybe I would decline (or close my eyes a lot, at least during the scorpion apocalypse...), but on paper, I really enjoyed ALL the scenes, even the crudest ones. Maybe I should try King again after this...
Anyway, since this isn't about me, fair warning: if you are a horror virgin, better start with a tamer book before you tackle these two. If you aren't, you'll have a real good time. This series plays with classic horror tropes and creates new ones. Book 1 is gorier than Book 2, but all in all, they'll both give you the most wonderful creeps :).


The first time you read WS, you're flooded with surprises and tension - and lots of hints you think you've made sense of, until you're reading TDM and finding the answers to questions you didn't even know you had. But I also recommend that you start rereading both books as soon as you close the second one, because only then things will finally come around and make total sense...some events in Book 1 foreshadow other events in Book 2, only Book 1 doesn’t necessarily precede Book 2 in a chronological sense - as the author would put it, they are two separated/connected Nows. And when you tackle Book 1 for the second time, you realise that the whole story is an ambitious, perfect circle.


The main difference between WS and TDM is the setting. While the first installment is contemporary in nature (apart from a small chunk of it), the sequel takes place almost entirely in an alternate Victorian London. Even to someone like me who isn't familiar with the place and age, the descriptions, atmosphere and language sound spot on. Bick must have done an awful lot of research in order to pull it off - and if you're familiar with her blog, this won't come as a surprise. Also, Book 2 introduces a narrator who is an alternate version of a historical figure: Sherlock Holmes' "dad" Arthur Conan Doyle. With whom the author sure takes a few liberties ;).


I'm not going to deny it: as much as I found this series engrossing and ingenious, I was sometimes frustrated (or mildly exasperated) by Bick's favourite device - ending a chapter (well, LOTS of chapters) with a cliffhanger and/or a truncated sentence, plus making us turn pages and pages before we could reconnect with certain characters and know if they were going to make it. Or simply what they had seen. The need for answers was too strong sometimes, and I had to go and peek where that particular storyline was reprised before I went back to where the author wanted me to continue reading. Yes, I admit cheating :). On the other hand, I've never really hold a grudge against Bick, because I understood that the general story needed to be told that way, or that there were enough reasons for it to be...
A couple on notes: 1) there's a conspicuous use of onomatopoeia (which I kind of liked) and 2) a slightly less conspicuous use of the verb "undulate" - which is a really cool one (I had never found it in a book before, and besides, it has a great sound), but wears out a little after the third time or so LOL.


I'll be very clear: not everyone gets a HEA in this series. I'm not talking about the characters (or versions of characters) who die in Book 1. And if you want the truth, it's not like those who make it in the end gets to live in a fairy tale - or FAIR tale, ha - either. It's the nature of this series. Having gotten this off my chest, I can promise you that, if you stick to the last page of TDM, you'll be rewarded with one of the best endings you'll have ever read. As far as I recall, it was the best ending I have ever read. And you know how selective I am with my books.


To be honest, most of my 5 star reviews are a testament to the quality of a book as much as the product of my personal commitment to it. Part gut ratings, if you like. But in this case - while I WAS invested in the story and its characters - I think the idea and the narrative alone justify the 5 star treatment. Both White Space and The Dickens Mirror might possibly be the best books I've reviewed so far, and among the best I've ever read. Having said this, I have a confession. I usually feel the urge to have everyone read the books I’ve loved (who doesn’t?) because I’m like "you haven’t read this book yet because you don’t know what it can do for you". With these ones, I’m torn. Like I stated in the "Will appeal to" section above, it takes a special kind of reader - patient, fearless, ready to engage with unusual stories and nonlinear narrative. If you aren't that kind of reader, these books will get another low rating or DNF mark. And really, they don't deserve that. More than with any other book I've read, this would be a case of "it's not you, it's me". Mind you, there's no shame in not liking (or understanding) a particular book. But I do want to match this series with the right kind of reader, because I'm aware that all the lack of love it got on Goodreads is only to be ascribed to an impressive number of bad matches. I'm not saying that these novels are flawless...but they don't deserve the less-than-stellar average rating they got. It's like if someone showed a romance-driven book in my hands - disaster would strike...


As I said above, the original publisher of this series, Egmont USA, shut up shop. But in case I managed to get you interested in these books, don't worry - Lerner Books' imprint Carolrhoda Lab has acquired Bick's catalogue, so it won't be a problem to locate her novels. Which I really hope you'll consider doing :). As for me, her older titles are already on my TBR list, and I'm very excited about her next project - a horror/SF book. I can't wait to read the blurb :).

For more multiverse books click here.
For more books that defy categories click here. 


  1. It sounds like the author tackles several tricky devices (multiverse, metafiction) and does them well.

    I'm glad you found the entire series to be star worthy! That's a rare thing.

    Karen @For What It's Worth

    1. Maybe it's easier with only two books, I don't know. For example, I was let down a bit by the third installment of The Jenna Fox Chronicles, since it took a detour from the two previous books. Then again, there's a cohesion with this duology that can only be achieved with a strong control over the idea and the narrative - especially since it goes so many different places. This woman is a genius :).

  2. Holy crap, I think I need to read these! I'm actually a little mad at myself that I haven't already. :)

    Your review was made of awesome!

    1. *blushes*

      Yes, I do think this series is totally your thing. And the author is a King fan herself, so I guess that comes as a recommendation! ;)

  3. That was one long review, Roby! And a great one at that :)) This series sounds absolutely amazing and I'll be sure to check it out erm, when I get through my currently very scarily piling up TBR list!

    Ruzaika @ The Regal Critiques

    1. Within the next ten years then ;D.

      Sometimes I think I should write shorter reviews...but you know, THE FEELS.


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