Portal fantasy has it’s own special corner of the genre landscape. The form is familiar, yet rich with possibility: a door to another world appears, aPortal fantasy has it’s own special corner of the genre landscape. The form is familiar, yet rich with possibility: a door to another world appears, a choice is made, a character comes back changed … if she comes back at all. For many readers, these stories are the entrance to the idea of fantasy itself. Children who began their reading lives with Narnia or Alice in Wonderland often spent some part of their childhoods afterward opening odd cupboards and doors, hoping to find magical worlds on the other side.
Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series offers a fresh, nuanced take on portal fantasy. The series begins with Every Heart a Doorway, an award-winning novella that imagines a school for all the curious children who found doors to their own, bespoke worlds. These wayward children came back from their magical worlds, and now are having trouble fitting in to the real world. Some of their doors may open again, while others will never be found a second time. Each book in the series stands alone; they may be consumed in any order, like a jewel box of truffle chocolates, each one enticing and unique.
McGuire’s newest Wayward Children book, In an Absent Dream, arrives January 8, 2019. It tells the tale of Katherine Lundy’s childhood. If you’ve read the first book, you know Katherine Lundy eventually becomes one of the teachers at the school. She finds her door when she is eight years old. It leads to the Goblin Market, but this is not so much a story about the adventures that Lundy finds (and there are many) as about the rules of that world and the rules of this one. It’s about choosing, and what it means to be fair.
“ ‘We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?’ ‘Come buy,’ call the goblins Hobbling down the glen.” — Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
In the poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, Lizzie, the protagonist, finds a loophole in the rules of the sensuous goblin world. This loophole enables her to pull her sister back from the gates of death. In McGuire’s version of the Goblin Market, there are rules, too, and Lundy loves rules. The five rules are: (1) Ask for nothing; (2) Names have power; (3) Always give fair value; (4) Take what is offered and be grateful; (5) Remember the curfew. The Market itself is the arbiter of these rules, giving a wry weight to the term “market forces” when consequences become manifest...
Grocery store pumpkins are at high tide, and the aisles are stuffed with bags of fun-sized candy. Shorter days are bringing windy nights, apple cider,Grocery store pumpkins are at high tide, and the aisles are stuffed with bags of fun-sized candy. Shorter days are bringing windy nights, apple cider, and scary stories told by the fire. In celebration of the season, we declare this “Crone Appreciation Week” here at Fiction Unbound.
Baba Yaga is the archetypal crone. She is a slavic legend, an old woman, probably immortal, with iron teeth, who lives in a house that walks about on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence of human bones. She flies in a mortar, the kind you grind herbs in, steering it with a pestle. Sometimes there’s a broom involved to sweep away her tracks. She’s rumored to eat children, but only little boys (that’s one way to smash the patriarchy).
Baba Yaga wins our Crone of the Year Award, as well as our hearts. It was little contest, given her unwavering iron nose, iron will, and commitment to shaping the female leaders of tomorrow. Jane Yolen’s updated novel-in-verse about the archetypal crone, Finding Baba Yaga, is well-timed to come out on October 30th, at the height of the season of the witch.
CS Peterson: Baba Yaga stories often begin with a young person wandering from home and losing their way in the woods. Yolen updates the legend by beginning with Natasha, a contemporary teen, running away from a deeply dysfunctional life at home. There is no Hansel and Gretel romance here. Natasha spends days and nights sleeping rough, as a homeless runaway. The reality of her situation is gritty and hopeless. Things get better when Natasha turns off the beaten road and enters the woods. But beware, as Yolen warns in the poems that bookends her novel:“You think you know this story. You do not.”
“this is a tale both old and new, borrowed, narrowed, broadened, deepened, rethreaded, rewoven, stitches uneven”
The line starts off a little like the bride’s rhyme of what to wear: “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” But blue is missing in Yolen’s verse. All sorts of fairy tale expectations veer off to take different paths in this portrayal of the old crone in the woods.
Amanda Baldeneaux: This book is my first formal introduction to Baba Yaga, a character I’ve only met prior on the periphery of Western fairy tales. In Yolen’s version, we meet a woman who lives both in the present and out of time, a woman who can be found by taking one wrong turn off the interstate but who can come across occupied castles and monarchies as easily as she would a 7-11.
CSP: Yes! When Natasha enters the woods the story definitely takes a turn for the fantastical: walking houses, lessons from a magical crone on flying through the air. But the gritty undercurrent from the first poems remains, just below the fantasy surface. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the protagonist tells two stories, one of animals, and one of human cannibals. Which story is true? Well, Pi asks, which one do you prefer? Yolen’s Natasha could ask the same of the reader. Does she really wander into a wood and apprentice herself to a magical crone, one who is at least as dangerous and unpredictable as Pi’s tiger? Maybe. Which kind of story do you prefer? There is power in a fairy tale to overlay trauma and transform it into something that is possible to hold in the mind. We are built of metaphor and narrative. As Yuval Harari theorizes in Sapiens, storytelling is the defining characteristic of our species, the thing that literally makes us human. Narrative is the tool we use to make sense of the chaotic world. Humans live in a dual reality; one exists objectively, the other we create in our minds to understand the first. Yolen’s book is about the power of words to create reality. It’s a meta-fairy tale, aware of its own magic.