We all know what a portal fantasy is, even if we’ve never heard the term. The Chronicles of Narnia. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Magicians, etc. We all know the beginning of the adventure. We all know the adventure. But what about after? What happens to the boys and girls who go on impossible quests and return, irrevocably changed? That is story Seanan McGuire’s short novel Every Heart a Doorway seeks to answer.
Nancy Whitman is the newest student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school/ sanitarium for children who have disappeared and returned claiming to have been whisked away to another world. In Nancy’s case, she has returned from the Halls of the Dead where all but five strands of her hair have turned white. She is desperate to return, though return is a very rare thing. But the desperate often turn to extreme measures to get what they want. Even murder.
I want to like Every Heart a Doorway. I really do. But while the short novel has a good central idea, there are too many flaws that suck out any real enjoyment I have.
The writing is flowery and literary in a young adult style. It works for readers who like that style, but for readers who are not terribly fond of the young adult style, the writing can be off putting.
The biggest problem with Every Heart a Doorway is that McGuire tries to condense a significant amount of ideas into too small a narrative space. Part of the story is orienting Nancy to her new school. The majority of the story, however, deals with surviving a serial killer running loose in the school. Neither story thread gets the space it needs. The orientation provides only sketches of characters save for the eventual (spoiler alert) antagonists. The horror story is very predictable. Ultimately, everything falls flat.
(A part of the problem, I think, is that Every Heart a Doorway is trying to be a literary fantasy, which focuses primarily on explorations of character and character growth, but cannot escape the fact that it is a fantasy and must have a more exciting plot than portal fantasies being nothing more that living metaphors of the individual’s psyche).
Another major problem with the story lies with representation. The main character is asexual, although said asexuality had to told to the audience rather than shown in a very clumsy scene that also revealed one of the four boys in the school as being transgender (transforming the scene into the young adult equivalent of Jerry Springer after the fact).
Furthermore, the explanation as to why there are only four boys out of a school population of forty is deeply problematic. And I will leave it at that. (Though if any one wants to comment with their interpretation, please do so. Just remember to be respectful and not abusive or bullying).
In conclusion. I found the story to be deeply unsatisfying and poorly constructed despite the good ideas. Perhaps if the story had been split into two stories of nearly two hundred pages each, I might be writing a far different review.
If I am honest with myself, the portal fantasy will not be the first of the four projects I wrote about last October to be completed. That honor will, more than likely, go to Black Magic (which has a new and better working title). The frustration is that the portal fantasy is one of my oldest ideas. I really want to write a portal fantasy. But, in the end, I have no satisfactory idea where the hell I’m going.
The earliest iteration of the project was sword and sorcery. The series of stand alone novels followed the adventures of Leo Crowley (Tyler’s antecedent) after he became trapped in a fairly standard Bronze Age inspired world. The main difference between this older version of the portal fantasy is that Leo became merged with a demon shortly after he is summoned to the fantasy world by an evil wizard. At the time, I liked the idea. It was a decent juvenile effort, but too derivative of traditional sword and sorcery. (I want to write a sword and sorcery series, but I want to make it my own). So I abandoned the project for years.
Gradually, I began to wonder what would happen if a fantasy city intruded onto present day Earth, thus was born Two Cities. Characters from the present day (at least at the time of writing) travel through time and to other worlds for an adventure or two (or more), but characters from fantasy worlds rarely return the favor (that I know of). It is time, I think, to change that. I like this idea. There is a domesticity and literariness that calls to me. But where is the conflict (or one that I don’t feel is needlessly stupid)?
Finally, I returned to a modified form of my original idea with two leads, Jett Drake and Tyler Spang. As I wrote in my series of posts on the portal fantasy in October, Tyler had all the action and Jett just hung around. I’ve recently hit upon in interesting arc for Jett, but now Tyler is in the lurch. I don’t want Tyler’s adventures to amount to nothing more than sex tourism. The idea is strong and I like it. But it needs work.
Honestly, I should step back from portal fantasies for a while and figure out fully what the hell I want to do with these projects. What is it, ultimately, that I want to write?
I have an answer. I want to combine both Two Cities and The Journey (for lack of a better name) with a few more ideas into a grand epic fantasy that spans Earth and two or three fantasy worlds. I want to explore how Earth would react to real life fantasy worlds. I want to imagine what types of diplomacy, trade, and tourism could develop. And I want to see how Earth characters would deal with other worlds facing epic conflicts, moments, events, etc.
This is very ambitious stuff. Creating two to three worlds would strain my world building to the breaking point and beyond. I don’t know if I can do it. Nor, honestly, do I know how to make it all work at the moment.
I have a lot to think about.
The first thing I need to determine for this project is the number of possible worlds Tyler and Jett will have to traverse in order to find their way home. At the moment, I am set on a single world. The reason why is that a lone novel, no mater how large it ultimately is, can only support a single world setting. A series can easily accommodate numerous world settings. In a way, I find the possibility of transiting dimensions or realities to be a very uncertain endeavor. With the countless dimensions/ realities possible, is it really likely that people journeying from one reality to another will find their way back home so easily at the end of the story? In fact, I think it more likely that any number of realities will have to be traversed. Unless, of course, our trekkers decide to settle down on a nice world, even if it isn’t their original homeworld.
I do believe I’m talking myself into a series. Crap?
Anyway, let me sketch out what I envision for the one world I’m set on at the moment.
The world is flat. In fact, the world is the universe. The shining lake of liquid light at the heart of the island at the center of the world is the oldest part of the universe. The youngest parts of the universe lie at the constantly expanding outer edges, where new oceans and lands are eternally in the process of creation.
The world is, therefore, impossibly gigantic (though not equal to the size of our own universe).
The world houses both magic and fantastical science. The are civilizations possessing high levels of advancement, and there are civilizations just getting off the ground. And, of course, there are civilizations in between and fallen.
The world is, in a sense, always in a state of chaos.
There are humans. The majority of civilizations are human. But there are other sentient species populating the world as well. There are crocodile people. There are scorpion people. There are dolphin people. So on and so forth.
My creation is the culmination of all of my influences. It marries sword and sorcery to planetary romance. It is weird and fractured. It might even be a little punk.
Hell, I could make a series out of just this setting alone. Double crap?
I’m not going to go into much detail about the world just yet. I’ll do that when I publish the damn book.
I have always wanted to write a portal fantasy. The reason why, I believe, is that I want to write about the experiences of a contemporary character trapped/ touring/ adventuring in another world. Indeed, this project has, in several forms, been gnawing at me for years. It is finally time I get off my ass and write the damn thing.
But am I writing just another portal fantasy? In that this novel is an adventure novel, maybe. However, I strongly believe that the approach I’m going to be taking is atypical of most portal fantasies.
What do I mean by portal fantasy? A portal fantasy is any fantasy in which a character from “our” world is thrust into a clearly fantasy world. The fantasy world can be both a separate world/ dimension or the hidden places of our own world. I am also going to include planetary romances like the Barsoom series for good measure.
The fantasy world that I will be utilizing is a separate dimension from our own. The world I am imagining is, frankly, impossible according to the laws of physics that we know. That said, I will be including some typically science fictional elements because I love science fantasy.
To be honest, I am psyched to finally get to work on this project. And I’m excited to write about it on this blog.
My next post will explore my influences. The second post will sketch the world. The third will be a response to a series of posts on Black Gate dealing with planetary romances. The fourth post will explore some of my past ideas. The fifth post will discuss the problem of Jett Drake. The sixth post will deal with Tyler Spang and his libido. The seventh and final post will deal with whether this project will be a novel or a series.
I hate it when this happens. I am minding my own damn business (actually, I’m watching my bratty nieces and getting more frustrated by the moment) when I am hit (not by my nieces) with a sudden revelation.
For whatever reason, the portal fantasy is in a state of disarray. Absolute chaos reigns on a universal flat world.
And Tyler Spang wants his costume back.
To be honest, Tyler and Jett work really well in Redwind. They work well in the portal fantasy after a fashion, too. But they work best as superheroes.
The truth of the matter is that I know more of where Redwind is going outside of Tyler’s bed hopping. The portal fantasy needs considerably more work than that.
So, I’m off to reintegrate Tyler and Jett back into the superhero life. And I need to do significantly more work on the portal fantasy.
Tomorrow, I’ll try to post about my issues with researching magic.