A new trend in fantasy is dealing with the aftereffects of visiting another world and then returning home. It’s no longer Edmund Pensieve’s exclamation of “Oh, I forgot my torch in Narnia!” The movie, Prince Caspian, dealt with this phenomena briefly at the beginning with Susan’s character. Wonderfully acted, the crowd realizes that she had grown up in Narnia and now was stuck in the body of a teenaged girl, no longer queen, living a fairly drab existence in London.
But the movie moves on from this topic to other elements, but a few contemporary authors did not. They wrote in detail how it would be to return from another world and have no one believe you. It is even more complicated if you had powers or learned new skills in the fantasy land. And Earth is no Candyland, either. Those people who have returned are welcomed with suspicion and derision.
First, we have Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, the first book in her Wayward Children series. This book wins the award for one of my favorite titles. The novel explores a school where children go who have experienced a portal adventure when their parents don’t know what to do with their fantastic tales and they have a tough time readjustment. More support group than school, the students all know why they’re there. There are two schools – one for adventurers who want to return to their world and one for those that don’t. The first book is a mystery where some of the students in the school are gruesomely murdered and the rest must deal with the aftermath. Vividly depicted, the novel is a short and breezy read, perfect for a rainy day. The cast of characters is distinct and effectively oddball enough to be interesting. The mystery takes a back seat to the concept of rehabilitation of the portal-travelers and descriptions of their different worlds. It ends too abruptly for me, but the concept is first-rate. McGuire draws a parallel with people who have dealt with a trauma like coming back from a war or abuse, those who would rather continue in an extreme situation rather than conform back to the norms of a society, quite well. Oddly enough, I found myself wondering about the other “school” mid-way through the book. What about the children who wanted to rehabilitate?
Another novel, Just Another Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce, tells the story of Tara who returns after twenty-year absence claiming she has lived within a fairyland (but don’t call them fairies). The story is primarily set in current-day Leicestershire, England around Christmas time. Tara shows up at her parents door looking like she hasn’t aged a day, claiming that twenty years ago, a man convinced her to travel with him, ending up still on Earth but in a place where your heightened senses reveal hidden secrets of our planet that we, in our blind state, cannot see. She thinks she’s only been gone six months but in our time this equates to many years (thank you, C. S. Lewis). Tara, like the characters in Every Heart a Doorway, has a hard time adjusting and submits to tests and a psychiatric treatment. Her family is both suspicious and overwhelmed. A good portion of the story is not told from Tara’s point of view but from the family’s, especially her brother’s and her boyfriend’s. Whereas in McGuire’s tale, the people who haven’t traveled are one-dimensional obstacles, you get a more complete picture in Fairy Tale. The boyfriend, in particular, takes the brunt of her disappearance. Her disappearance has transformed his life, not for the better.
While both books are fascinating, Joyce’s to me has the edge. Many people are disappointed because it’s a fairy tale book that spends little time in the fairy tale elements, but the fantasy land was never the focus. This is a story about what makes a home a home, and the longing people have for it, and how sometimes it’s impossible to rekindle the feelings we have about home even if the physical location still exists. The ending is bittersweet, both reintegration and disintegration at the same time, and I couldn’t help but feel for its characters.
I knew the premise of Doorway but didn’t realize the same premise existed in Fairy Tale. I enjoyed that both were about the same idea but were completely different. I’d like to see more novels like this in the future with different slants as they carve out a sub-genre of the portal fantasy.