Portal fantasy I read a long long time ago

I was going to publish this on my YA site in honor of my very own portal fantasy being published this summer, but as I wrote the post I started to feel OLD. The most recent book on this list was published sometime in the 80s. The oldest was published in 1907. The fan fic is newer, but it’s still not exactly yesterday’s fiction, so I thought I’d share this here where you won’t judge my very new book by how old some of the books I liked as a kid are.

I loved books where people from our world went to a fantasy world and had adventures. A lot of those books had characters who had to figure out the world and who they were at the same time. I mean LOVED.

My parents had these beautiful copies of The Wizard of Oz books.

Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Ozma of Oz

Did you know there was more than one? There are 14 written by L. Frank Baum and all of them have wonderful girls as the main characters, who aren’t afraid, who have a lot of common sense and who get things done, even if they’re a little confused about what they are doing. I don’t remember much of the stories, but I do remember some images, like the people growing out of plants, or the miniature china town, where people got broken by careless big visitors.

My favorite Diana Wynn Jones book was The Homeward Bounders, about a boy named Jamie who gets exiled from our world for spying on “Them,” mysterious evil powerful beings who play games with the universe and the people in it. Jamie survives by becoming friends with Helen, who was maybe the first “unlikeable” female character I remember reading. I loved her for her anger and discontent and refusal to be beaten down, and with Joris, a really annoying perfect privileged boy who turns out to be a decent sort anyway.

The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones

The Homeward Bounders

I re-read this book recently, and it is SAD, but I loved sad books as a child.

(Of the Chrestomanci books, Witch Week was my favorite, possibly because almost everyone in that book is being bullied and I was already having that kind of problem myself. Though not as extreme! But alas not as magical either.)

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. Apparently this is the third in the series?! I never read the other two, my library didn’t have them. This is also a sad book, about a girl at boarding school who changes places every night with a girl named Claire who lives in 1918 at the same boarding school.

The Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg. This is actually a series, but again the library only had one of them and I don’t remember which one or anything about it except loving the humor in it. I am not responsible if you read it and don’t think it’s funny. I was probably about 10 and the book had to be one of the ones written in the 80s.

(The library is probably responsible for why I enjoy reading series out of order—I know! Heresy!—but it’s like an additional puzzle to figure out as I read.)

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the first books I remember reading. It also inspired the first story I remember writing, which was definitely fan fic way before I knew there was such a thing. The suck fairy has definitely visited this series, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. If you want a deconstruction of all the colonialism, racism and sexism in them, head on over to Ana Mardoll’s blog, but get ready for the rabbit hole of epic proportions (see what I did there?)

If you loved the series when you were younger but can’t stomach it now, the movies try to fix some of the problems and there is a fair amount of fan fic and fan fix out there, like Ursula Vernon’s “Elegant and Fine” about Susan (poor maligned Susan, who deserves a better narrator than Lewis, and many have done well by her), The Carpetbaggers and The Cave in Deerfield (also SO SAD) by cofax on AO3 and the cross-over stories by burntcopper, also on AO3.

Of all of the rest, the only one I have re-read recently was The Homeward Bounders, so I can’t say if they hold up well. I love Diana Wynne Jones, but I love her in spite of the fact that there is often fat shaming in her books.

Did you love portal fantasy as a kid? What were some of your favorites?

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What I’m reading: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, The Fire This Time & Fiyah, issue 1

in-search-of-our-mothers-gardensthe-fire-this-timefiyah-issue-1

I went to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker, The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, and Fiyah, Issue 1, to recapture the trick of living while oppressed. I seem to have lost it in my 20s or 30s when I could wrap the privilege of having a job with money, living in NYC among a chosen community, with the status of a married woman around me like a force field. I had left behind the teachers who belittled the idea of a woman or a black man inventing the cotton gin and the boyfriend who hit me and I channelled most of my rage into my non-profit job securing women’s reproductive rights and occasionally at the men on the street who told me to smile. I had money for taxis at night and didn’t worry as much about walking home after dark.

I forgot what it’s like to live not feeling safe.

I forgot what it’s like to live with white skin my only privilege (yes it’s a big one).

The world has not been free of injustice, but it seemed it was getting better. And now it’s getting so much worse with bewildering speed. So I’m drawing on the coping mechanisms, the organizing strategies, the ideas of how to live, how to resist, how to be an artist, of people who never had a chance to forget. Who didn’t have the privilege to forget. And I’m crying, but it’s not all tears of rage and despair, some of those tears are for recognition, beauty and strength.

I chose In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens because it was immediately available at my library, I remember reading her essays in college and because she is (relatively) old school now. I wanted to see what a black womanist activist was saying about the 60s and 70s (knowing that so much has changed and so much has not changed). I went to The Fire This Time, because it’s current and can tell me about now, this moment we’re living in. And it blew me away. There’s not one essay or poem in the collection that didn’t bring connections up to the surface for me or move me. “Message to My Daughters” by Edwidge Danticat made me cry in public, at a restaurant. “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau made me hopeful, because there is always resistance. “White Rage” by Carol Anderson told me about my people and I have her book on hold at the library now. Everyone should read this book. It will galvanize you. It will help you understand our world. It will give you models for resistance. And I went to Fiyah because life is about more than essays, it’s about art, which reveals reality, and hopes and fears, and speculative fiction is my go-to reading choice. I recommend it, even if, especially if, you’re not white and the stories don’t “resonate” with you. How are they going to ever resonate if you don’t immerse yourself or give them a chance? And even if they don’t resonate, ever, at least you learned something about others and yourself.

 

 

What I’ve been reading: The Obelisk Gate and Orleans

obelisk-gateThe Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. I thought The Fifth Season was one of the most exciting books to come out in the SFF genre in a long time, both thematically and from a craft perspective. It was also one of the most emotionally challenging books I had read in a long time for many obvious reasons, but the hardest part for me were the descriptions of child abuse. It would be hard to top all of that, and I don’t think The Obelisk Gate managed. I also had to put it down for a long time because of something Essun does fairly late in the book. I could deal with her being a mass murderer several times over, but not this very intimate betrayal. More than everything, this book seemed to be about coping mechanisms, how they help people survive and how they brutalize the people who use them and wield them against other people in their quest for survival.

orleansOrleans by Sherri L. Smith. I can read most dystopias/post-apocalyptic stories without a problem because they are more like fables than anything else, but some are too real and hard for me to read (like The Handmaid’s Tale, which I will never re-read). This story of a young black woman in a post-hurricane, post new epidemic New Orleans was one of the ones that seems too real and too possible. It’s a tough read but good in a heart-wrenching way, though I was not a fan of the ending.

 

What I’ve been reading: Ninefox Gambit, Too Like the Lightning & Infomocracy

ninefoxNinefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. A challenging read that’s worth it. Starts off with a steep learning curve as it all seems to be in English but you don’t know what any of the concepts mean put together like that. It’s like learning a new language and I could practically feel the neurons connecting in new ways. I actually re-read the first chapter, once in the sample and again after I bought the book and it helped a lot. Definitely something different, if you’re tired of the same old, same old.

lightning
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. “I got this,” I said, “after reading Ninefox Gambit, Too Like the Lightning can’t be too hard.” I was wrong. This was even more challenging. With Ninefox Gambit, I knew I didn’t know what the words he was using meant. With Lightning, it seemed like I knew what all the words meant, but did I really know? I felt like I was testing every word, every concept and asking, Is this what the author intended? Is this how she meant this? Partly because this book has lots of chewy ideas and partly because I was derailed fairly early on by Mycroft’s response to Danae’s gender performance in a world where supposedly those gender markers aren’t common (and the explanation for that doesn’t come for another 300 pages.) I’m glad I read it though I
wasn’infomocracyt always glad while I was reading it.

Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. This was fun to read on the heels of Too Like the Lightning as it had some of the same ideas about near future and micro nations (for lack of a better word that applies to both) but in a much more accessible form. It reads a bit like a thriller, but with lots of
ideas about democracy and social media and voting.

 

You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott on lighthouses

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.

2016: The Year of Portal Fantasy

Early in 2016 I jokingly said that it was going to be the year portal fantasy makes a comeback because I saw the announcements for Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars in quick succession.

Of course, portal fantasy has always been around, but when Lightspeed Magazine published “Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” by Jeremiah Tolbert in February, I thought maybe I wasn’t so far off. Maybe it’s the time for new and exciting takes on portal fantasy.

Tolbert’s story is just that, one of those stories that you read and exclaim “Of course it could happen like that! That makes so much sense!” It’s fantastic because it turns portal fantasy on its head.