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Monthly Archives: November 2016

“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and its sequels have been described as “Harry Potter for grownups.” Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, might similarly be described as “The Chronicles of Narnia for grownups.” It features a school for children who, like the Pevensies, went through doorways into other worlds. But the focus of the story isn’t on the childrens’ adventures in those other worlds; it’s on what happened to them after they got back. Their belief in the reality of those realms didn’t fade as they grew older, and so their parents came to believe that they were suffering from a psychiatric disorder. The school masquerades as a mental health facility; what it truly is, is a place where children who’ve been to otherworldly realms can be surrounded by people who understand and believe them.

The book is short (almost a novella) and a fast read; despite that, it takes the time to present strong world-building and characterization. The worlds that the main characters have been to are wildly different, and some of the returnees have mapped out a system of categorization for these worlds. The story also presents an intriguing chicken-and-egg dilemma: are particular children drawn to certain realms because of their personalities and traits, or are their personalities shaped by the dimensions they visit?

The story has a strong emotional core as well. Many of the characters felt more at home in the alternate worlds than they do in the “real” one, and McGuire writes poignantly about their longing for those other places and their frustration at not being believed about their experiences there.

This is all further complicated when one of the students is murdered. The mystery aspect of the plot is well-written for the most part, although I did find the final confrontation with the murderer to be a bit anticlimactic. The characters certainly faced challenges in identifying and tracking down the murderer, but they seemed to apprehend the perpetrator too easily.

This is the first book in a planned Wayward Children duology. The second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is due to be published in June 2017, and I definitely plan to read it.

Shimmer, E. Catherine Tobler (editor), July 2016

Questions of identity take center stage in this issue of Shimmer. Nicasio Andres Reed’s “Painted Grassy Mire” uses a similar concept to the selkie stories that have enjoyed a recent surge of popularity, but distinguishes itself by making use of a very unconventional creature. The main character’s quest to discover who (and what) she truly is mirrors the immigrant community in which she lives, full of men who have built a new life for themselves but still remember their former home.

K.L. Morris’s “The Wombly” was my favorite story in the issue—it drew me into the world it built and made me want to know more about how things came to be the way they are. Both here and in Avi Naftali’s “glam-grandma,” the idea of transformation is vital. The characters in these stories become something other than what they were at the beginning, and these changes affect their relationships with the people around them. In both cases, the reader is prompted to contemplate what happens to those left behind in the wake of such a transformation.

The final piece, Natalia Theodoridou’s “The Singing Soldier,” addresses the theme of identity on a larger scale. Here, it’s not the identity of a person we must question, but the identity of a land itself. Can a place truly be said to have an identity of its own, or is it always determined by the people who live there? What happens when a piece of land changes hands—peacefully or otherwise? How intertwined can a person’s sense of self become with the place they live in?

Editor E. Catherine Tobler has skillfully chosen four stories that, while very different in style, are bound together by a common theme. Each of these pieces is well worth reading on its own, but placed side-by-side, they form a coherent and intriguing whole.

“To the Bright Edge of the World” by Eowyn Ivey

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Like her debut novel The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World is set in Alaska. This time, the main characters are not homesteaders, but a trio of soldiers making an expedition through the unexplored countryside along the Wolverine River. Part of the story also follows Sophie, the wife of the expedition’s leader Allen, who remains behind in Washington Territory.

Most of the story is told through Sophie and Allen’s diary entries, with occasional newspaper articles and letters back and forth between a descendant of the couple and an Alaskan museum curator. This epistolary format allows the reader to really get inside the heads of multiple characters, both during the time period of the expedition (1885) and in the present day.

Although this is primarily a historical fiction novel, there are some elements of magical realism. Ivey effectively uses these elements to emphasize how out of their depth the explorers are. The use of magical realism also ties into another of the book’s major themes: the divergent ways in which different cultures view the world. The strange things that Allen and his compatriots encounter are really only strange to them—to the Native American communities of the region, they’re just facts of life.

While Allen is traveling through the Alaskan wilderness, Sophie prepares for the birth of their first child and embarks on a study of photography. Unlike other early photographers, who were largely interested in portraiture, Sophie’s passion is for nature photography. Despite her (comparatively) urban setting, she finds just as much wonder in a bird sitting on its nest as Allen does in the massive glaciers and unbroken forests of Alaska. The beauty, power, and sometime danger of nature is one of the main threads that ties the two narratives of the book together. What these intertwined narratives give us is a compelling story about discovery, family, the interaction of cultures, and the ability to find mystery and transcendence in unexpected places.