Friday, November 25, 2011

Best Portal Story (and I mean that)...

So how do you decide what books to buy? When browsing a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, the first thing I'm drawn to is book covers. I've gleaned over the years that this is a terrible way to choose a book, but I can't help it.

Mostly two types of covers lure me in for a closer look. Traditional fantasy in the vein of:


These are by Matt Stawicki, Darrell Sweet, and Michael Whelan. I had originally (unintentionally) grabbed three books with covers by Michael Whelan. His art is gorgeous, but I hadn't realized I owned so many books he'd illustrated. In contrast, I also love Todd Lockwood's art, but apparently don't own any books with his covers.

I'm also drawn to what is often called literary fiction, which i prefer to call general fiction (or lit fic, which makes it sound more like a genre and less like a college course). covers like these:


Which brings me to why I picked up
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

 The cover was obviously general fiction,

but the name implied fantasy. So I read the back cover (not everyone does this, which intrigues me - how do you know whether to go further if you have no idea what the book's about?), and then I read the beginning (some people open to a random page in the middle to check out the writing. Maybe I'll try that one day, but since I usually buy books on Kindle, it's not likely).

Here's the first part of The Magicians:

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.

They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That's how things were now. The sidewalk wasn't quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn't have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.

I was hooked. I liked Quentin. And more to the point, I loved everything the infamous New York Times reviewer hated (I'm not linking to it because, really; why?). Not sure I could have been more furious about that review if I'd written The Magicians myself. A Narnia-style adventure with gritty realism and adult fears and dangers and disappointments? How could you not at least be curious?

Genre I'll go with urban fantasy, since a decent chunk of the book takes place in New York City.

How it starts Quentin and James arrive at their interview to find the Princeton alumnus dead. The paramedic who takes the body away is gorgeous but a bit odd, and insists on giving them envelopes with their names on them, supposedly found in the house. Because James refuses, Quentin accepts his own. This quickly leads to his taking the strangest exam of his life.

General premise Quentin is a math genius graduating from high school. He's also capable of performing magic, and because of that is accepted into an elite, secret college in upstate New York. But magic turns out to be far more sinister and dangerous than in the fairy tales he'd adored as a child.

Page 20 Quote

"Good afternoon," he said. "You would be Quentin Coldwater."

He spoke very correctly, as if he wished he had an English accent but wasn't quite pretentious enough to affect one. He had a mild, open face and thin blond hair.

"Yes sir." Quentin had never called an adult - or anybody else - sir in his life, but it suddenly felt appropriate.

"Welcome to Brakebills College," the man said. "I suppose you've heard of us?"

"Actually no," Quentin said.

"Well, you've been offered a Preliminary Examination here. Do you accept?"

Quentin didn't know what to say. This wasn't one of the questions he'd prepped for when he got up this morning.

"I don't know," he said, blinking. "I mean, I guess I'm not sure."

"Perfectly understandable response, but not an acceptable one, I'm afraid. I need a yes or a no. It's just for the Exam," he added helpfully.

Portal fiction

I've always loved portal stories. Alice in Wonderland. The Narnia books. The Mirror of Her Dreams. But usually they're aimed at children, or they're a thin excuse for the author to more easily describe a new world from the perspective of someone with our background, rather than through the eyes of a native who doesn't find it strange at all. The Magicians is the kind of book I'd always wanted to find - an adult transferred into an alternate universe, and not on a one-way trip.

Portal books aimed at adults are almost always time travel. Time travel's great, but I want more books where someone's entering an alternate world, not just a past one.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Genre: crossgenre fantasy/historical fiction

This is definitely time travel, but chosen in honor of the book I'm anxiously waiting for. It's 1945. Clair Randall, a WWII combat nurse, is in Scotland on a second honeymoon with her husband. While exploring, she walks through a standing stone and directly into a skirmish between a Scottish clan and an English army unit in 1743.

I must say the Outlander books are not for the faint of heart. Until fairly recently, fantasy tended to dress up war and old-timey goings-on with nice clothes and jeweled relics and people who swore at each other using quaint expressions. This book has everything they left out - gruesome battles, disease, rape, alarming superstition, and people with a horrifying lack of reverence for human life.

The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson
 Genre: fantasy
Terisa Morgan lives in New York (hey, something else in common with The Magicians) in a fabulous apartment paid for by her neglectful-yet-overbearing father. When Geraden comes crashing through her wall-sized mirror looking for a champion to save his land, he insists she's the one he came to get.

The Search for Fierra by Stephen R Lawhead
Genre: Science fiction

I read this in my early teens, so it's been a while. Orion Treet is abducted at gunpoint and offered millions to chronicle the growth of a colony on another planet. But he goes through a wormhole and, instead of a new startup, finds a civilization that has developed its own history of hatred and deadly conflict over several millennia. Based on the time-travel aspect, I would consider this fantasy, but it know. Spaceships. Wormholes. Needle guns.

Any recommendations for adult portal books?

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