Good books are portals wherever we find them







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.



Good books are portals wherever we find them — 37 Comments

  1. This post made me hug myself for a minute and dance around the kitchen. It is so stellar I could return hours of reading pleasure to you even though I’m not the author in question ^^ by being the mouth that the word came from, heee.

    And just think you still have Medair and Stained Glass Monsters to read (SGM is probably the most traditional fantasy). The first Medair book inside the duology was even nominated for an Aurealis Award in 2010 (link is to pdf of finalists).

    I didn’t add the Touchstone Trilogy to Rachel’s thread because I thought it was YA portal sf, but Andrea and you calling it science fantasy (and especially considering the dreamlike quality of the spaces where the Setari fight) makes sense to me, too.

    Finally, of course the Touchstone Trilogy is available at for Kindle, too – I basically sent you the Smashwords version because being German I would have to pay European VAT at, but Smashwords doesn’t collect it.

    • That’s how I saved Necessity’s Child for this weekend and devoured the eARC in a satisfied gulp. I still have to more small tests to correct, however. So I admire your self-discipline ^^.

  2. It really helps to have people like you, who talk to a wide audience of others, recommend a self-published book. Otherwise it’s just a bewildering ocean out there; I would have no idea where to begin.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. I’d probably start with (and be grateful for) the recommendations of friends and friendly acquaintances (on places like LJ) who were good enough to take the plunge and venture into that huge, huge marketplace of self-published stuff.

    I do wonder, from the writer’s point of view, how the self-published titles do find readers, but I guess this is exactly how.


    • Yeah–I think word of mouth is finding new communication patterns. (If you get reading time, the one I recommend for you is And All the Stars–there is a story twist that I found especially effective, woo!)

  3. These sound good. Your Over the Sea is another portal book, yes? Normally I don’t care for them because it’s usually some random person walking through a fog and finding a new world. I want set up and motivation which both C.J. and Shashia have.

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  6. I love portal books, love to read ’em, love to write ’em. My two first published novels (Jaydium and Northlight, both available here at Book View Cafe) feature portals of one sort or another, as did quite a few of my early attempts that never made it into print. There’s something about going to another world that captures me, and in a way all books are portals to some other version of reality. My inner child insists that she wants to venture forth into a new and fantastical land, whether it’s by wardrobe or time rift or standing-stones or teleporter…

  7. Portals seem to be a sort of a sidestep from the even older “and it was all a dream” tradition.

    You’re right. They aren’t as popular with publishers as they used to be. But they have been a part of the genre for so long that we all grew up with them, so a lot of people still tend to invoke them when story building.

    There seem to be a whole string of associated tropes in fantasy which appear to be designed to keep the fantastical at a distance. Which is probably necessary, since otherwise suspension of disbelief gets exponentially more difficult. After all, in most people’s personal experience, the world we live in is not particularly fantastical.

    But they settle out into a sort of sliding scale where at one end, it’s all a dream, and then you get portal fantasies where it’s real somewhere — but you can’t get there, except under obscure/random/utterly extrordinary circumstances, and then you get the “breakthough” fantasies where the fantastical comes through the portal into *our* world, and has to be sent back or otherwise dealt with, which seigues into the “urban” fantasy where it’s already here, it’s just really good at hiding itself. And probably a number of other setps and stages before the whole story gets transposed into another universe where things simply work differently from the get-go. And even there there is a sliding scale of how much the alternate world looks like ours on the surface, before you end up in pure storybook land.

    That said; I grew up with portal fantasy, so I enjoy it and tend to regard it as a part of the natural order. I don’t think there are many fantasy fans of my generation who don’t.

  8. Oddly, I’d put the distancing factor the other way around. Middle Earth or Le Guin’s worlds are almost too alien to understand, ie to react to. Narnia is being experienced by POVs of our culture, so mostly we can accept their interpretations (though sometimes like any people in an unfamiliar setting they get some things wrong, as Ransome does in Malacandra). But when a person of our world has a dream, that’s all real and immediate to him while it lasts, and what he sees is what we get (Lewis’s THE GREAT DIVORCE).

    A remark elsewhere suggested a similar continuum, based on how much alien stuff is being presented to the reader., and how much the reader has to stretch to even begin to comprehend it. A POV character from our world, going into another world, can describe it in our own terms, so we don’t have to pick up an alien terminology and world-view too, or only in small doses (as, when the Pevensies are first told about Aslan). Easier is when the alien enters our world (Psmmead, E.T.), so all we have to consider is the alien himself and what impact he will have on our world. Easier yet is when the aliens have been here all along, so there doesn’t need to be any particular new impact on our world (Twilight).

    As to which of these is ‘best’, I like the classic portal stories (Oz, Wonderland) because the easier you make the reader interface, the more really wild stuff can go on in the other world itself.

      • Or, the more wild stuff can go on in this world, because of the visiting alien. Two barbaric queens can disrupt London (Nesbit’s and Lewis’s), and bicycles can fly. Owls can disrupt the Dursleys.

        Hm. One problem with Twilight is that sfaik it doesn’t fully use its license for chaos.

  9. That idea strikes me as well. “The easier you make the reader interface . . .” Then I am glad to buy into the “really wild stuff”!

  10. Well, I’m sticking with my YA portal fantasy. I get the problems with them, so I’m doing my best to make sure that I don’t fall into the portal traps. I hate the “go once and never go back.” I hate the “you can never grow up there.” I disagree mainly. In a world where you’re supposed to act like an adult, look after yourself, you’re more likely to grow up than, say, being coddled through an American university. I hate the colonialist “go in and fix the government for a naive people who can’t fix it for themselves.” I hate the “well this is the right thing to do” motive.
    I think that YA makes it a little scary, though, because the going somewhere having an adventure and returning is a MG arc. You change, but your world stays the same. For YA, part of the psychological change is that the world doesn’t change back. You see it differently. If part of your life takes place in another world, how can you let that world go without mourning it?
    (It’s why Susan was the most tragic Narnia character. It rejected her, so she rejected it, and then she lost her whole family, and lost any chance of ever being reunited with them. She got to live, but what a life.)

    • Well, with Susan, she lost one way to heaven, but not all ways.

      The portal fantasy trope I hated the most was “you forget everything as soon as you get back.” I guess that was the easy way to deal with fitting a person back into a small life after great events, but to me as a kid reader it was not just a cheat, it was a betrayal.

  11. I was at Sirens and was able to have a great conversation with the agents in question. There was a lot of what they were trying to say which they thought didn’t get communicated clearly enough in the panel conversation—people got hung up on the “no one is buying portal fantasy!” thing, and because of the limited time available for the panel there wasn’t a lot of time to discuss the nuances of why.

    They love well-done portal fantasy as much as we do! The critique was more that the portal books they were seeing in their slush piles often lacked key elements to make the stories work, and that it seemed like a lot of green authors were falling into the trap of relying on the device of a portal world to carry the whole weight of the book, to the detriment of motivated characters and engaging story.

    Their main issue was with characters who go to an alternate world, look around for awhile, and then say “well, I guess I should go home now!” without growing or changing or gaining perspective from the experience.

    • Thanks, Nora, for the clarification. That makes a lot of sense, in particular this bit: it seemed like a lot of green authors were falling into the trap of relying on the device of a portal world to carry the whole weight of the book, to the detriment of motivated characters and engaging story.

    • I am pretty sure that that is also a portal story, too. (I even remember a couple of stories like that in kids’ lit, when I was small. The original question having had to do with stories for young readers.)

  12. The classic Portal story is THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, in which you get to Narnia through a wardrobe door. Did you know they have the original Lewis wardrobe in Wheaton College?

    • I know–I wanted to attend the Mythcon held at that college, but alas, couldn’t afford the travel that year. (Actually, what I really, really wanted to see was more of Warnie’s diaries and letters.)

  13. I am astonished that those have not seen publication — probably there is some provision in a will or something, keeping them private. You’ve heard that there are actually 2 Lewis wardrobes, right? Each group claims that theirs is THE wardrobe.

  14. I, like Estara, was extremely excited to see your review of Andrea K. Host’s books – I have read them all, and love them. In fact, reading them inspired me to look further for other female-based sf/f – and I found your books this way! Needless to say, I’ve had lots of great reading since Stray was published.

    To the comments made by others of not knowing where to start in the sea of self-published works, it IS difficult. I read a lot of reviews and blogs to help guide me, so it makes me very happy for Ms. Host to have a well-established author recommending her work b/c of the extra consideration she’ll get as a result.

  15. OMG THANKYOU for reviewing Stray !! I tripped over your review recently and was intrigued by it, I am a long time fan of Portal Fantasy (not heard it classed so specifically before) and it sounded interesting enough to check out the price on Amazon. Delightfully Stray was *free* so of course I bought it.

    I have to say I was initially concerned that I would hate the diary style format but I really didn’t. Cassandra’s voice is so strong and the tone was so good I was completely enraptured. I could hear the stress in the first month, the tiredness, illness, fright and yet the sheer determination to give up. I did something I have never done before, when I got to the end, I used the link on my Kindle to immediately go on and buy Lab Rat One, and again to get Caszandra. I didn’t eat dinner two nights in a row so I could finish Caszandra and when I discovered it to my great delight, Gratuitous Epilogue.

    This is a fantastic series and I am totally going to read her other books and rave about her to anyone prepared to listen 🙂 I have posted on her blog, but I just wanted to say thankyou, I had never heard of her prior to your review, and it was solid enough for me to take a chance. Thankyou.

  16. OH, MY GOSH.
    Based on your say-so I just read this book, and … MAN.
    I’m going backwards now, reading everything else.
    I, too, hope she gets discovered by one of the big houses.