A recent discussion of portal fantasy hosted by Rachel Manija Brown was centered around a panel at Sirens, on which a group of agents maintained that nobody in New York publishing was buying portal fantasy for middle grade or young adult.
Some of the spin-off discussion was the inevitable “But that’s not true,” and named a lot of works, mostly for adult readers, that might be termed portal fantasy. Heck, I’ve written one myself.
But the original question was about Y.A. portal fantasy—protags go from our world to another world.
Janni Lee Simner was talking about it in her blog. In the comment discussion, she and I were pretty much in agreement that portal fantasy for a younger reader is magical in and of itself. Many commenters, like me, used to wish a portal would appear so badly that we walked into fog banks, and rapped the backs of closets, in hopes of finding one. But the more experienced reader is more likely to get jazzed about why the portal happened, and less by its existence as gateway to a new, strange world: the sense of wonder at the very existence of portals has diminished.
Meanwhile, I recently read a genuine young adult portal fantasy. It’s just that it wasn’t published by a Big Name Publisher.
Estara Swanberg, a reader in Germany, recommended a new self-published author. Estara’s and my tastes have overlapped often enough for me to download a sample of Stray, part one of The Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea K. Höst.
Trilogy? I’ve been reading so long that that word causes me to be wary, though it’s not an automatic scoff. I think that the three act form is so hardwired into us writers that trilogy-type stories come naturally; like anything else, some trilogies work better than others. And again, speaking generally, I sometimes wonder if my fellow writers get mired when they feel that a fantasy must be a trilogy, and so they st-r-e-t-c-h out a story into three books—which contributes to the middle book sag problem. But that’s another discussion.
Back to Stray. The second uh oh was a review that said Stray begins with a sort of Robinson Crusoe protag-alone-trying-to-survive trope. I am not fond of survival tales of any kind—my own tastes tend toward the urban and urbane. But the sample was free, so I opened my Kindle late one hot summer night.
From the very beginning the voice absolutely gripped me. In fact, Estara was so sure that this particular story was a fit for me it turned out she was generously buying me a copy of the trilogy that very night I turned on the wifi on my Kindle and bought the rest of Stray.
The Touchstone trilogy is actually more science fantasy, in that there is a heavy emphasis on scientific explanation, though purists would reject it as SF because of the psychic powers. Cass is an ordinary Australian high schooler who walks through a portal into another world, and can’t find her way back. So she sets about surviving, until she’s discovered by black-clad young ninjas called Setari . . . who, far from regarding her as any kind of special snowflake, identify her as yet another stray. They are more worried about the portals, specifically what is coming through them and why.
This trilogy (or three part novel—you can buy the entire work on Smashwords or here on Kindle)—is written in diary form, a toughie to maintain. For me, it began to flag in the middle of part three, when Cass resorts to summation rather than scene, but picked up rapidly again for the climax. The first two parts kept me so absorbed I was reading halfway through the hot summer nights.
When I finished that, I went straight on to try The Champion of the Rose, which seemed to be a more traditional fantasy. I soon found that Höst was turning familiar tropes on end—the champion is a woman, and though a sword comes with her traditional role, she doesn’t know how to use it. But she is still enjoined to protect a prince. And once again, early on, a trope appears that usually I am not at all a fan of, but it was absolutely necessary for the plot, and the ramifications were so thoughtfully explored, while the world formed its tendrils around me, that once again I found myself reading through a night.
So when I discovered that Höst had a new one coming out earlier this month, though I was on the road, I bought it as soon as my Kindle could get enough bars. Again, the logline (post apocalyptic survival) was something I usually avoid.
I ended up reading it straight through, on the bus, the train, and while sitting on a park bench in New York City. And All The Stars begins with teenage Madeleine sneaking away to pursue her love of art, in spite of her parents’ well-meaning determination she focus on practical things, so she is in the very, very wrongest of places at a profoundly wrong time: the story opens with a bang, as Maddie wakes up in the debris of a tramway station. She has to get out. She has to figure out what happened, because help doesn’t seem to be coming.
When she finally reaches safety, it’s in time to get sick. And wakes up forever changed. Maddie slowly pieces together what’s going on as she finds a group of friends who learn to trust one another; the cost of their newfound powers promises trouble, and trouble finds them. The story is also a mystery within a mystery, and it’s about friendship, trust, love, wonder, horror, and above all what it means to be human, with all its boundaries.
Are there quibbles? Sure. Any book has them, no matter who publishes them—both typos and places where maybe the story falters, though the latter will vary from reader to reader, again, as in any book. Yeah, I wish the books had a better proofer, but, um, as I go through one of my own right now, and find embarrassing arghs, (and the major publisher issued book I was reading last night furnished more arghs) I am not about to start slanging self-published books for being somehow less.
My own feeling is that the giddy new world of self-publishing reflects the giddy world of cheaper book production in the 1700s, when all kinds of methods of self-publication were tried, including subscription (or as we would say now, crowdfunding and Kickstarter). Everyone is experimenting, the problem is really how, with the wild numbers of new books appearing every day, readers can find what they are looking for. Word-of-mouth is reinventing itself as fast as publishing, meantime, I do hope that Höst gets discovered by one of the juggernauts just so she can earn enough to write full time.
I don’t know any more about Andrea K. Höst than what she puts on her website, but I do know I will buy her next book the day it comes out.