Portal fantasy I read somewhat less long ago

You may have noticed that a lot of the books I’m writing about were not published when I was a young adult (I’m not that old!) but I was reading things I found in the library, which was not bad but had more old books than new (except in romance and mystery), or in the attic of my house. Hence the rather eclectic list.

The Gate of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh. This is one of the few books I’m going to mention that I will still champion. (I’m not sharing that terrible 70s cover though, lots of naked muscles on everyone.) Cherryh is an amazing writer and her books stand up to the test of time. I had never read someone like Morgaine and Vanye, or a story told from the point of view of someone from a society that didn’t have as much technology as the other’s. You might be protesting that it’s science fiction, not fantasy, and it’s true, but there are portals… This book is also sad! So are the others in the series. So are many of CJ Cherryh’s books from that time.

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. Lyrical, lovely, lachrymose (I couldn’t resist) and a King Author retelling at a time I was into King Author.

The Mirror of Her Dreams Stephan Donaldson. This is one of those books that’s like a scar on my soul. I wish I had never read it, it was sexist and the main character was abused throughout the book, but it’s probably inevitable I read it because it was about a woman who traveled to another world. I read all three. I would have to say it was formative in what not to do as a writer. So that’s something. I guess. Don’t even talk to me about this author’s other books.

A book with a blue cover, a woman wearing some kind of desert robes, on a horse, facing the reader, with maybe a city in the background. It was portal fantasy, vaguely Arabian nights kind of setting. If you know what I’m talking about, tell me the name and author, would you? I loved this book, even though I also thought it was boring. It’s funny how both those things can be true.

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Every Heart A Doorway

Given my abiding love for portal fantasy (the first thing I can remember writing is a Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe knock-off, at about the age of 7), I had to read Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire.

I love the concept: a school for children (mostly girls) who have been somewhere else and come back, usually not because they wanted to; a school that helps them cope with having found the place they belong and having had it taken away; a school that gives them someplace to escape the families that want to help them.

I love the inversion of the trope of the portal fantasy. Here is this school full of people who have ALL been somewhere else and come back. It’s not a secret, it’s not a mystery (except in the sense that they don’t know why people travel and how it works). The beginning part was fun-bittersweet for me, a kind of guided tour of what that would look like, of the flip side that CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll never thought of and the sadness and dislocation the Pevensies and Alice must have felt. (I think L. Frank Baum might have done better with Dorothy, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read an Oz book and not just seen a movie.)

But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) this book was so close to being for me and then it wasn’t for me. I could still appreciate it, but I didn’t love it.

It’s too creepy.

A kind of creeping creepiness like spiders crawling on my skin.

I had my doubts about Nancy (the protagonist’s) world, the way you might side-eye the boyfriend of a good friend. “No, he’s great,” she insists but he seems kind of cruel to her and he doesn’t like any of her friends and you wonder if everything is ok behind closed doors. That’s how I felt about Nancy’s world. Maybe it’s ok for her and she really does like that stuff but I don’t and I’m not sure I can trust her judgement.

Jack and Jill and their world are even creepier… and you begin to see my problem.

Kade was a delight though and (minor spoiler) I was happy to see McGuire’s matter of fact portrayal of a boy born in a girl’s body (I don’t think he labels himself specifically in the book).

So this book is perfect for someone else, but not for me.