SUMMARY: (3 of 5 stars) This was the recommended book on the Writing Excuses podcast last week, I think. I grabbed it because it was short and I knew I would be spending a lot of time in airplanes. It’s an OK read. I like the basic premise: it’s set in a boarding school for children who have returned from fantasy universes, like the children in the Chronicles of Narnia. But even though it won tons of awards, I didn’t find the execution of the story to be all that compelling. Not that I wouldn’t recommend it. I totally would. It just didn’t change my life or anything.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
The story is focused on Nancy who has recently returned from the Kingdom of the Dead. The head mistress of the school has convinced her parents to enroll her in the school and she is attending very reluctantly. Reluctant because all she wants to do is go back. Just like all the other kids at the school.
The whole school is for children who fell through the looking glass, or found a mysterious door, or went through the back of the wardrobe, whatever. And now they’re back and they’re having a tough time getting back into the swing of living in our universe.
So, that’s the basic premise in which the story happens and I love that part.
From establishing Nancy’s introduction into the school, the story turns into a murder mystery. Someone is killing the students!!
This is fascinating to a point, but when the second murder happened, I immediately figured out not only why the students were getting killed, but what the murderer was trying to do. And I even had a solid guess about who the murderer was… a guess that turned out to be correct.
So, there is a lot of “tropeyness” to the book, IMHO. Or maybe I have the mind of a dimension-hopping serial killer. I’m willing to accept that conclusion as well.
The book is full of “non-standard” characters. Specifically, they aren’t straight, white, cis-gendered males. In fact, most of the characters are female, which is something I actually enjoy a lot. But the main character is asexual. And she is closest to a transman. Her roommate is a bisexual (I think) girl. I’m pretty sure one of the characters is a lesbian, but I don’t recall that being made explicit. I will admit: all of this diversity was a bit distracting to me although I don’t find it objectionable.
I am pretty sure this is one of those books that won a bunch of sci-fi/fantasy awards that made folks like the Rabid Puppies complain that the awards aren’t being given based on the quality of the work, but rather on the socio-political agenda(s) advanced by the works.
There is an explanation for this in the story. The reason most of the students are female and other non-conforming types is because those people don’t “fit” as well into our world. Instead, they “resonate” in particular ways with other universes, which is why the doors open up for them. So, of course this school will be full of people who aren’t normies.
It’s arguable that this premise in itself advances a particular socio-political agenda. That’s true. After all, nothing in art is an accident. But it’s also true that from certain perspectives, non-conforming people do have a harder time fitting into society. I dunno. I didn’t find it all that preachy myself, only a little distracting. (The way the trans character was explained took me a little while to sort. I knew he was trans, but I couldn’t immediately tell if he was a transman or a transwoman. I guess it should have been obvious, but I stopped at several points to say, “Wait. Why would they think that?” or, “Why would this character have said this?”)
The most surprising thing to me in this story was the way it ended. The murderer was caught and actually returns to the world she visited. And Nancy returns to her world, too.
Nancy’s asexuality is a topic of some discussion in the book because it affects the way she relates to other characters. But we take the alternate worlds the characters visit as being metaphors for the characters themselves (They’re “alike” in some key way that attracted them in the first place.) then I think it’s rather sad that Nancy not only went to the Kingdom of the Dead, but she returns there.
Nancy likes the Kingdom of the Dead. She feels at home there. She is highly valued there. And it really works for her. But it’s still a world in which it’s night all the time and people are prized for being cold and absolutely still. Objectively speaking, this is not a world very well-suited for living human beings. But it’s presented as a paradise for this asexual young woman.
Similarly, another character is very science-minded. She likes logic and understanding the truth of nature. But her alternate reality is one ruled over by a tyrannical vampire and she works for some sort of Frankenstein-type of mad scientist. That world resonated with her because there she is allowed to pursue the “masculine” world of science rather than having to be conventionally pretty all the time. This seems like a pretty fundamental misrepresentation of what it means to be “logical” and is a harsh judgment of what it means to be the sort who pursues science.
I think this is the underlying premise of the story that left me cold. There’s a high value placed on subjective experiences over objective reality. But it’s a book about magic, so I guess that’s not very surprising.
Anyway, I thought it was OK. I know lots of people who would probably enjoy it more than I did.