Why You Need to Read: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

Wayward Children, #3: Beneath the Sugar Sky

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 9, 2018

Genre: Fantasy

            The Queen of Cakes would never have been defeated: Sumi had died before she could return to Confection and overthrow the government. Rini wasn’t just saving herself. She was saving a world, setting right what was on the verge of going wrong, (5: Places of the Living, Places of the Dead).

***NOTE: This review contains some spoilers from Every Heart A Doorway. That book should 

be read BEFORE reading this one. 

            Quests; adventures; journeys. Everyone is familiar with the numerous stories about “ordinary” people who leave home to go on a “hero’s quest” usually “to save the world.” Other journeys include a fellowship attempting to do the impossible, and most of them take place in different worlds. Stories about Narnia, Oz, Middle-earth and the gods involve quests. In fact, several video games such as Final Fantasy are about a group of individuals on an adventure to accomplish a goal. Seanan McGuire has her readers return to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children before they go on a quest, which is against the rules. Beneath the Sugar Sky, the 3rd book in the Wayward Children series, takes place after some time has passed after the events in Every Heart A Doorway

            Readers are reunited with the students from Eleanor West’s school: Kade, who is training to be the school’s next headmaster; Christopher, who is waiting for the Day of the Dead so his Door will appear, if it does; Cora, the school’s newest student, who was a mermaid; and, Nadya, one of the school’s longest residents, who talks to turtles. It is an ordinary day at school, until a girl wearing a cotton candy dress falls from the sky and into the turtle pond. The girl identifies herself as Onishi Rini, the daughter of Onishi Sumi, one of the students at the school. Rini claims she is from the future and she is searching for her mother—who disappeared from their home in Confection. There is one problem, Sumi is dead, which means she can’t have a daughter in the future, at least in our Logical world. However, Confection is NOT a Logical world, so there should be a loophole, right? Eleanor allows some of her students to go on a quest—which, is against the rules—”to put Sumi back together.” Kade, Christopher, Cora and Nadya travel with Rini on her quest bringing their knowledge and their skills as they attempt to do the impossible. Readers learn more about these characters, the worlds they call Home, and the worlds they travel to. Who else will they meet along the way?

            The plot in this story is straightforward. A few schoolmates are going to resurrect the dead friend with her future daughter leading the way. All they have to do is travel to the worlds where pieces of Sumi can be found so they can put her back together. Not too difficult right? Not to mention, with Sumi dead, Confection remains under control of a despot, who will do everything in her power to stop her nemesis from coming back to life. There is one subplot and it goes back to one of the plots from Every Heart A Doorway, which is the construction of the Great Compass. Kade, Christopher, Cora, Nadya and Rini all traveled to different worlds; and, those worlds are connected to each other somehow. As the students continue on their quest, they note which worlds are connected to each other, which serve as clues for the students who are trying to return Home. It seems like the Great Compass is forming into a larger map where one world has pathways to several other worlds. Someone just has to figure out a way to map them all out. The subplot develops alongside the plot as the characters note which Doors take them to which worlds. 

            The narrative follows the points-of-view of all of the travelers, but the focus is on Cora because she is the newest student. This means that the P.O.V. is 3rd person omniscient and the sequence is in the present as readers follow the events in “real time.” In addition, following the streams-of-consciousness of the characters make them reliable narrators that makes it easy to follow the story.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in this story reminds readers of the adventure stories they’ve read (and, probably continue to read). Throw in elements of hero’s quest stories from myths and legends and some Japanese pop culture and you have a story everyone can enjoy. Allusions to Orpheus, the Underworld, JRPGsSailor Moon and Back to the Future can be found throughout the story and are recognized by readers who are familiar with them. Additionally, the allusions to magic objects and other tropes from folklore could be viewed as foreshadowing for future books in the series and as evidence that magic exists in our world. The mood in this story is adventure. The students go on a quest to save their friend and her future and her Home. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know it will be more fun than they’ve had in a long time. The tone in this story is fellowship. The students wouldn’t embark or assist in this quest if it wasn’t for the loyalty—both strong and fragile—they have for each other. They are not sure whether or not they will succeed in their quest, but they are willing to risk it all because of the friendship they share. There are illustrations in this book done by Rovina Cai. While they are few, they capture the essential parts of this quest, and the illustrations are beautiful.

            The appeal for Beneath the Sugar Sky have been positive. And yes, this novella was nominated for some of the literary awards its predecessors have won. However, fans of the series agree this book is a creative continuation about the lives of the students at the school. Readers learn through the characters that magic is brought over to Earth from other worlds, and the magic and the worlds are connected. This book is a portal-quest fantasy and it belongs in the fantasy canon alongside the other books in the series. This book can be read by fans of both Philip Pullman and Joseph Campbell. And, due to its connection to the first 2 books in Wayward Children, readers can and should reread all of the books in the series so they know how each book is related to each other. After reading all 3 books, they will be ready to read the next book in the series, In An Absent Dream

            Beneath the Sugar Sky is a sweet addition to the Wayward Children series. This book gives readers a quest with some of their favorite characters—both old and new—where they learn about them and some of the many worlds as they journey to save their friend. The author combines story elements from the past and the present in order to present this narrative to her fans. In all, this novella is a must read for fans of fantasy stories and of fantasy scholarship. 

My Rating: MUST READ NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “Every Heart A Doorway”

Wayward Children, #1: Every Heart A Doorway

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: April 5, 2016

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: Hugo Award for Best Novella 2017, Nebula Award for Best Novella 2016, Locus Award for Best Novella 2017, ALA Alex Award 2017

            …the wanting. You want to go back, and so you hold on to the habits you learned while you were traveling, because it’s better than admitting the journey’s over. We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on, (3: Birds of a Feather). 

            Anyone who is a fan of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, and authors who write similar stories MUST READ THIS SERIES!!! The Wayward Children books are a portal fantasy series which asks the question: what happens when those who are “spirited away” return to our world? Seanan McGuire answers this question in her series. While it is obvious which stories inspired and influenced the author, the originality will draw readers into this series. It mentions how a combination of Time and Desire can lead to a portal to another world. And, there are many worlds which we are familiar with whether or not we realize it. They are allusions to other portal fantasy and adventure books and readers have to recall all of them in order to comprehend the series. 

            While there are several characters in this book—the students and the (resident) teachers are “travelers”—the protagonist is Nancy, the newest arrival at Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children: No Solicitation, No Visitors, No Quests. She is 17-years-old and was “gone” for six months in the Halls of the Dead before the Lord of the Dead returned Nancy to our world so that she can “Be Sure” before making her choice to stay there forever. It’s been “seven weeks, four days” and counting, and Nancy is waiting for her Door to reappear. Nancy is like many of the students at the school, she wants to return Home, but knows there is a slim chance of it happening. Nancy’s parents send her to this school so she can “get better,” but Nancy learns quickly that the school is a haven for other children like her who want nothing more than to return to their Homes. There’s Sumi—Nancy’s roommate—who traveled to Confection and cannot sit still long enough to hold a conversation. Kade—a relative of Eleanor’s—who was kicked out of Fairyland and is in charge of managing everyone’s “preferred” wardrobe. Jacqueline and Jillian—known as Jack and Jill—are identical twins whose adventures in the Moors is something out of a black-and-white horror movie. And, Christopher who traveled to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” similar to the holiday, Día de los Muertos. The adults in charge consist of Eleanor West, the headmistress, whose Door is still open; and, Lundy, the school’s therapist, who is aging in reverse as punishment for breaking the rules of the High Logic, High Wicked world she “visited.” Unlike Eleanor, Lundy knows she can never return to her Home, and so she projects her bitterness on to the students. All of the residents at the school want to go Home, but they all have to settle on having to learn how to readapt in our world. And yet, many of the students refuse to believe their Doors are lost to them forever. 

            There are 2 plots in Every Heart A Doorway. The first is learning how the school operates and how Eleanor recruits students while keeping them safe. The second is the construction of the “Great Compass.” Eleanor, Lundy and Kade spend their free time compiling a book of the descriptions and the characteristics of each world. The most common “directions” are: Nonsense, Virtue, Logic and Wicked; then, there are several “minor” compass directions such as Rhyme and Linearity. These plots are continuous throughout the series, and it is fascinating to learn how the school is managed, and it’s intriguing to learn which worlds are “connected” to one another. However, it is the subplots that keep the readers engaged, and there are two of them. The first concerns the murders of some of the school’s residents. Who is killing them and why? The second subplot follows the worlds each traveler visited and the “stereotypes” surrounding each one. For example, who’s to decide on whether or not a world of rainbows is “good” over the world with skeleton people? All worlds whether or not they exist in reality contain both beauty and danger.

            The narrative in this story follow’s Nancy’s point-of-view; but, she does not remain as the only P.O.V. character in this story. There are times when the P.O.V. switches to other characters, even for a paragraph. So, this narration is presented using 3rd person limited omniscience. Due to the style of narration, the protagonist—and, the other P.O.V. characters—are reliable narrators. Not to mention, readers get the characters’ streams-of-consciousness throughout the story. It should be mentioned whenever the characters are talking about their Homes—both their worlds and their families—they are as memories, NOT flashbacks! This is because the characters are describing their experiences as they remember them; and, some of those recollections are unreliable because they are from their perspectives, which are biased. 

            The style Seanan McGuire presents is a twist on portal and quest fantasies. Farah Mendlesohn defines “Portal-Quest Fantasy” as: “In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not ‘have’ to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are,” (Mendlesohn, 1). McGuire asks the question: what happens if the ‘hero’ or the ‘traveler’ returns to our world? On the one hand, Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland goes back to Wonderland in Through the Looking Glass before returning to our world for the rest of her life. On the other hand, Dorothy from the Oz series traveled to Oz so often, she, her aunt and her uncle, and Toto move there permanently. So, why did one stay in our world while the other one didn’t? Would Alice have stayed in Wonderland if she was given a choice? And, the characters from McGuire’s story, what would they give to return Home? The author asks these questions as these children return from their travels changed, and are suffering—NOT from PTSD—but from struggling to return to their mundane existence. The allusions to all of the stories and their authors mentioned are informative and valid. Instead of the “familiar” fantasy stories and fairy tales we believe we know, readers receive the dark lore and the styles from other variants of folklore and fantasy stories. And, it’s the reality check fantasy readers didn’t know they needed. The mood in Every Heart A Doorway is a haven for all of the travelers. The tone in this story is how each character struggles to accept their current predicament. Some have accepted it and others continue to search for their Doors.  

            The appeal for Every Heart A Doorway were and continue to be multitudinous. Not only did this novella win several awards—including the Hugo and the Nebula—but also gain numerous readers who were introduced to the author and her other books, including myself! This book and the other ones in the Wayward Children series belong in the speculative fiction canon, and have lasting appeal because of the characters and their stories. The fact this continues to be an ongoing series will have fans rereading this book over and over again. In fact, Tor.com announced fans and readers can expect the series to have at least 4 more books, bringing the current total to 10 books!

            Every Heart A Doorway is an amazing and unique look into how diversified fantasy is based on all of the worlds the characters have traveled to, and why all of the authors who wrote similar stories believed their characters were better off returning whence they came from instead of remaining where they were the happiest. Fans of both traditional and twisted fantasy stories should read this book. This novella will have you searching for your Door.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan, 2008.

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Middlegame”

Middlegame

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Metaphysical

            Dodger was never going to be a linguist, any more than Roger was going to be a mathematician, but they could cope, which was more than some of their fellows ever learned. They balance each other, (Variation). 

            Seanan McGuire is an author whose books you’ve heard of, but you probably haven’t read, or maybe you have and didn’t know it. Known for her two urban fantasy series—October Daye and InCryptid—they are some of her most popular books. Under her pseudonym, Mira Grant, her paranormal horror stories—Newsflesh and Parasitology—brought more readers and fame to her. Once you start reading her books—the Wayward Children series is my favorite books by her—you become curious as to which books to read next by her. Middlegame is a standalone novel, which is Seanan McGuire’s most ambitious book to date, and is the story she claims she’s “been working on for years.” Well, the wait was worth it, and if there is any book to be read by this author, then look no further than Middlegame

            There are three protagonists in the novel. First, are the twins, Roger and Dodger, child prodigies who were “created” in a lab and separated to be raised separately so that their “abilities” can manifest apart from each other, and from those who created them for their purposes. Roger is adopted by a couple and is raised in Massachusetts. To him, words and languages come to him as easily as breathing, but don’t ask him for help with math. One day, when he is seven years-old, he is struggling with his math homework and he cannot come up with the answers as he can with his spelling. And then, he hears a voice in his head, which gives him the answers to the questions. The voice belongs to a girl named Dodger. She is the same age as Roger and she lives with her adopted parents in California. She’s a prodigy too, but math is her subject. The two children think nothing about their “ability” to speak to each other with their minds, and they help each other with their schoolwork. Unbeknownst to them, they’re twins who’ve been kept apart from the day they were born. They don’t know that they’re being watched by members of the Alchemical Congress, too. Dr. James Reed—our third protagonist—is the one who created the twins and monitor their “growth.” He is the former student, and “son,” of Asphodel Baker, and his goal is to finish the work of his mentor: seeking a way to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, to enter the Impossible City, and to harness the omniscient power that lies within it. So far, Reed has accomplished the first goal in the twins. As Roger and Dodger develop as characters and grow (up) as people, Reed’s goals and motivations develop and alter alongside them. While readers witness the harsh upbringing of the twins, they comprehend Reed’s goals and his reasons for achieving them. He is a monster and a mad scientist in one embodiment, but he earns some sympathy throughout the narrative; some. There are several other characters in the story, but Erin is the liaison between the twins and Reed. She is the most complex character in this story and one of the reasons is because she has a love-hate relationship with all three protagonists, which means her motivations are unknown to everyone, including the readers. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first one follows the growth and the development of Roger and Dodger from childhood to adulthood. Readers witness how the twins are raised as prodigies and the pressures that come with it; the pattern of their friendship, including all of the highs and the lows that match any other friendship; and, the development of their powers and what it means for them and those who have been observing them. The second plot follows James Reed and all of his actions over the years as all the “embodiments” of the Doctrine of Ethos develop, and what it means to him and all of his desires. Throughout the story, readers experience all of Reed’s failures and triumphs as he does everything in his power to keep his project going, while remaining one step ahead of the Alchemical Congress so that everything will come together the way he wants it to be. There are two subplots that go along with the plots at their own rate. The first is all of the events surrounding the Alchemical Congress from the council, to Reed and his “other” projects, to Erin’s actions and influences on the work and the legacy of Dr. Asphodel D. Baker and how all of her research is the catalyst of this story. Everything comes together as the story develops along with these plots. The second subplot focuses on Dr. Baker’s “research” and the lengths she went to in order to have her work “published.” 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all of the main characters using 3rd person omniscient, which allows for everything to be witnessed by the readers from their streams-of-consciousness to their flashbacks. Given the narration and the P.O.V.s, all of the characters are reliable narrators (even though they’re not reliable individuals). While the narrative has a sequence that can be followed by the readers, it can get confusing at times, especially to those who are not familiar with elements of the metaphysical genre. There are jumps in the timeline, but they don’t happen randomly; otherwise, the narrative flows at a rate that matches the development of the characters and the plot. 

            The style of Seanan McGuire will be familiar to her fans and captivating to other readers. Her word choice and sentence structure reflect the jargon and the ongoings of the characters’ occupations. Math, science and literary technology are used at the given moments. In addition, the novel is an allusion to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (yes, The Wizard of Oz movies are based on books), and anyone who is familiar with those books will appreciate both the reference and the criticism of the series by the author. Other pop culture (i.e. movies) and literary (i.e. authors) references will be recognized by readers who will comprehend their usage. Another thing the author does is criticize the gender bias surrounding both child prodigies and female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workers. The sexism experienced by both Dodger and Dr. Asphodel D. Baker should not by overlooked. Instead, readers should be aware that such occurrences are still ongoing and have traumatic and long-term consequences. The mood in this novel is authority: who has it, who wants it, and who fights against it. The tone is the idea and the question of whether or not authority should be claimed at all. If an individual gains control of authority, then what would it mean for everyone else? Should authority be given to one person, even if they don’t deserve it? I want to point out that the theme of the creator being betrayed by their creation is well done here as well.

            The appeal for Middlegame has been extremely positive. Not only have fans of the speculative fiction genre have had praise for the book, but also several critics have given their own positive feedback. NPR and Amazon called the book, “one of the best of 2019” and has received praises from other literary critics. It’s already getting hype for the upcoming literary awards. Middlegame is a recipient of the 2019 Alex Awards, which makes Seanan McGuire the first author to win this award three times! And, Middlegame was one of My Favorite Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books in 2019. In addition, fans of this book can expect, Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker, a companion book to this novel, which may or may not provide further insight into the fictional work referenced throughout the real one, in Fall 2020. Middlegame is a great addition to the canon and should be read by fans of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. All of the pop culture and literary references will have readers of other genres picking up this book, too. 

            Middlegame is a brilliant work which combines all aspects of the speculative fiction genre into one story to be enjoyed by all readers. The plot, the characters, and the narrative are elements that fans of the genre will love, but the allusions to pop culture and other influences will pique the curiosity of readers of other genres as well. The book is a story about knowledge, ambition and failure, and the consequences of acceptance and perfection. These themes of the human heart are why Seanan McGuire continues to buildup her fandom with readers who love a good story about people and their desires.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Why You Need to Read: “Uncanny Collateral”

Valkyrie Collection: Book One: Uncanny Collateral

By: Brian McClellan

Published: April 2, 2019

Genre: Urban Fantasy

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains some minor spoilers. You have been warned.

            “My name is Alek Fitz,” I said. “I’m a reaper for Valkyrie Collateral, and I’ve come to collect your debt.”(Chapter 1).

            When an author diverts from their known genre, the fans notice. Several questions are asked: Why is this author working on this? Will this genre/sub-genre be as good as the author’s other books? Should I read it? J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin are the current popular examples of the genre switch up. Brian McClellan shifts from epic fantasy to urban fantasy in his new novella series, Valkyrie Collections. Both fans of McClellan and urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.

            Alek Fitz is a part troll, part human individual who is an indentured servant/reaper for Valkyrie Collections, a debt-collecting agency that keeps track of people (mostly humans?) who exchange their souls for corporeal desires. Think of it as a world in which people think and behave like Dr. Faustus. However, instead of the individual going to Hell once the contract is over and the conditions are met, that individual is doomed to live without their soul for the rest of their mortal life. Of course, nobody wants to live without their soul, so there are some people who try to avoid the exchange; and, that’s where reapers—a.k.a. bounty hunters—like Alek Fitz comes in. Alek is the best in the business, but it isn’t because he is a workaholic. His boss, Ada, owns him, literally. Alek was sold to her as an infant by traffickers. The barcode over his heart gives the “owner” control of him. All Ada has to do is touch the barcode, which inflicts pain and Alek is obedient to her every whim. This means that Alek is put on the most demanding and dangerous cases. 

            Alek is “partners” with Margarete Abaroa, or Maggie, a jinn who is trapped inside a ring because of a curse, which Alek cannot get off due to the same curse. Both Alek and Maggie work well together, and both share common ground that they are victims of unwanted circumstances. Maggie gives Alek the upper hand and Alek treats her with respect. Both Alek and Maggie are the protagonists in this story because Alek is stuck with Maggie and vice versa. However, Maggie is not without her secrets, so whatever Alek knows about her is because she told him. No one knows about Maggie and why Alek wears a ring while at work. I would say Ada is the antagonist because she is the reason for Alek’s lifestyle. Just like in other stories from the genres of urban fantasy and mystery, Alek has confidantes and sources who are the type of “people” who you expect them to be, friendly but self-serving. 

            The plot for Uncanny Collateralis Alek is forced to take a job for the Ferryman—a.k.a. Death—in order to recover numerous souls, which have been stolen and are being sold secondhand to those who have traded their own. This is a problem for two reasons. One, missing souls throws off the “process” that occurs after an individual’s death. Two, someone who is in possession of any soul but theirs causes them to rot from the inside out. Alek and Maggie are on the case with a limited time span, because the balance of death is in jeopardy. The subplots within the story focuses on the past surrounding both Alek and Maggie. Alek wants out of his bondage from Ada, and he wants to know who his parents are and why they sold him. And, Maggie’s past is revealed to Alek—and to readers—when someone comes looking for her with ominous intentions. The subplots reveal more of Alek and Maggie’s character to each other, but it furthers their resolve in working on a way to escape their bondage. The plot develops, rises, and resolves at an appropriate rate because the series needs to begin and to end with the continuing dilemmas of these characters.

            Just like in other urban fantasy stories, the setting plays a huge role because the characters interact and travel from place to place. Alek travels throughout parts of Ohio—real places—talking to imps, necromancers, and angels while searching for the missing souls for one of the agents of death. The narrative is told in real time, so everything happens in a stream-of-consciousness and we learn about the setting and the society in which Alek resides in. Obviously, Alek is the narrator, and it’s safe to say that he’s a reliable one because of his predicament and lifestyle. The real time and the action within the narrative makes this novella an easy read. 

            One of the ways the author writes his story is by using allusion and pop culture references. Ferryman is described as looking like Keith Richards with a voice like Bob Dylan. Alek works for Valkyrie Collections; Valkyries are beings who travel the world collecting souls of warriors to fight in Ragnarok. And, Maggie is a jinn who is cursed to live inside of a ring. McClellan uses these methods in order to set the mood of the story. At the same time, the tone of this story lets readers know that this urban world is harsher than ours. Lost souls, cursed objects, and necromancy are just some of the negatives that comes with living in a world with magic and paranormal forces. This is the author’s take on the paranormal and it is very engaging. 

            Fans of urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.Fans of McClellan’s other works will enjoy both the worldbuilding and the fight scenes. This novella is the first in a new series by a popular best-selling author who is branching out with his storytelling and giving readers something new and different to enjoy. It seems novellas are gaining more popularity when authors present their fans with the chance of reading more of what they have to offer. It is obvious that McClellan plans on continuing this series, and I hope he does because the story is very entertaining, and it would be a shame if the series ended before it could continue. And, while it’s too soon for any form of adaptation to be considered, I believe either a graphic novel or an animated series would be the best formats for consideration.

            I had the opportunity to be both a Beta and an ARC reader for Uncanny Collateral. And, while it’s cool seeing your name on the Acknowledgements Page, I really did enjoy this story. The Valkyrie Collection reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s American Godsbecause of the use of actual places for the setting gives the story a realistic appeal, and something unknown could happen without anyone else knowing about it is a bit eerie. Brian McClellan presents his urban fantasy world and it works. All of the familiar elements are there: magic abilities, humans with knowledge of the existing worlds, and half human protagonists struggling with their identity. Like I said before, both urban fantasy readers and McClellan’s fans will enjoy this novella. 

            Uncanny Collateralis a fun addition to the urban fantasy genre. The setting is realistic, and the characters are rounded with conflicts that match the world the author created. The pacing of the story is appropriate for a novella and the plot fits within the length as well. My only issue is that it’s too obvious there is going to be more to come in this series, but of course readers won’t know what will happen next until the next book is released. I hope we get more because I want to know what happens next, too.

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).