Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Place Without Portals, by Adam-Troy Castro

★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended

(Portal Fantasy) She was not the chosen one; that was only a dream. She did not flee our world via a magic mirror, and she was not chased by pig monsters, but she did wake up in her own bed. (2,148 words; Time: 07m)

"," by (edited by John Joseph Adams), appeared in issue 95, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: I think the story is trying to make the point that the real world is more dangerous and scary than any fantasy world could be.

Con: This gets dull fast, and the outcome isn’t enough to make it worth slogging through the rest of it.

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5 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. While I agree that this is Not Recommended, I'm surprised you gave this any rating unless I missed some way in which it is genre. (Anything that would have been fantastic did *not* happen.) I read it practically the same but with a slight variation - the real world *is* scarier and more dangerous but I think it was specifically addressing that, whatever it is, there is no "escape" from it - no better fantasy world to go to. No land of adventures. No life-changing magic.

    It's almost like it was directly inspired (or "dispired" as a variation on "dispirited") by Harrow's "A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies" though I doubt it could have been written and published so quickly after her February story, even in the world of webzines.

    1. I've been pretty generous about reviewing anything that's at least fantasy-adjacent, although in the beginning I took a much harder line. This one was a close call, for all the reasons you cite.

      That said, it's very obvious that some stories (not this one, of course) are clearly the result of someone taking a non-SFF story and adding just the smallest speculative element so they could submit it to a genre magazine. I do rate those, but I rarely if ever recommend them. Those bother me worse than this does though.

    2. Okay, I must have gotten your earlier approach stuck in my head. :)

      And, yep, there are some stories that have a very subtle speculative element but it feels integrated and I sometimes like those a lot, at least in fantasy but it's almost never good when there's just a little something bolted on. I'll grant that this was thoroughly "anti-fantasy" (or whatever would be best to describe it) and not bolted on.

  2. I read the story and I have to disagree with your review - almost on every count, but the most obvious charge is that this is some moody teen story masquerading as fantasy. This is pure portal fantasy, told in the negative, which makes it all the more brilliant.
    One of the things that makes it work is that we're never quite sure of the narrator's perspective. Is the narrator omniscient, able to tell of things as they really are (in other words, when the narrator says 'this never happened' are we to take that at face value)? Or is the narrator more closely aligned with our heroine (does the narrator say 'this never happened,' because our heroine wakes up and she believes it never happened)?
    The narrator tells us that there is no indentation of dust left in the attic, but a part of that could just as well be the heroine telling herself not to go check.
    It is worth pointing out here that the only plot in this story is the one that is told in the negative - the fantastical one with pig men and dark lords. It isn't like the writer had a non-speculative story and decided to add spec as an afterthought. If he had done that then all that would be left would be a girl waking up and thinking about the crappy world she lives in - not much of anything.
    There are many, many portal fantasies where the protagonist forgets the adventure or even writes it off as a dream, by the way. Wizard of Oz comes immediately to mind - we're told pretty clearly at the end that Dorothy was comatose the entire time with her family looking on. The only difference is Dorothy's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the dream contrasts with our heroine in this story's too-early-acceptance.
    I didn't care for how the author poked such fun at my favorite portal fantasies, pointing out how the villains lack villainy or how the danger is more imagined than real. So I'll dock it a point for that - four out of five.

    1. Well, that's definitely a much nicer interpretation than mine, in that it makes the story much more coherent. I particularly like the idea that even though the story is all in the negative, we're supposed to believe that all of it really did happen.

      Strip that out, though, and there's no story left at all--just the outline of a story. It's a cool gimmick, but there's really nothing here besides the gimmick.

      I generally like Adam's work, for what it's worth, and I've often recommended it. Lately, he's been writing a lot of experimental pieces, and while they're always clever (and often hilarious), they don't always work. Not for me, anyway.