Thursday, August 23, 2012

Through the Looking Glass: Shay West's The Chosen

Fantasy and science fiction are filled with stories of people who step through a doorway, or a wardrobe, or a looking glass, or a wormhole, and then all of a sudden find themselves in a whole-new world.  Farah Mendlesohn, in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, provides a name for many of these stories--portal fantasies.  What is key about the portal fantasy, according to Mendlesohn, is that it starts from a place of familiarity.  The reader then travels with the protagonist through the portal, discovering the new and the strange at the same time the protagonist does.

Given its title, it would seem that Shay West's Portals of Destiny series would fit into this category.  And the plot of the first novel in the series, The Chosen, initially seems to deliver.  West tells the story of four members of an alien race known as the Gentran, each of whom must travel through a portal to another world to watch over select inhabitants from that world--known as the Chosen--and then shepherd them back through the portal.  All this is done to fulfill what the Gentran prophets have foretold is necessary to stop the threat of the Mekans--a race of horrifying, unstoppable robot-like creatures. 

Although the concept of traveling through a portal to another world is a familiar trope in scifi/fantasy, the plot of The Chosen sets up several interesting variations on this theme, the most significant of which is the idea of using multiple portals at once to bring five alien races together into the same room (or underwater chamber, actually, given that the Gentran people are water-breathers).  Stories of portal travel with only two worlds being linked are fairly common, but West expands the possibilities and implications of inter-world travel with her development of the portal mechanic.

Unfortunately, this creativity in thinking about portals also leads to the major weakness of the novel--it is extremely difficult to keep everyone straight.  There are five separate worlds, and on all but one, the characters have names that are unfamiliar to (most, if not all) English speakers.  To add to this complexity, the Gentran characters who initially travel through the portals change their names when arriving upon Earth, leading to much confusion about who exactly is who.  And it's not like each Gentran Master is chasing down two Chosen ones--no, one group of Chosen ones has at least seven!

This, then, leads me to my other critique of the novel--it wasn't long enough.  Once I figured out who was who, I really enjoyed several of the narrative threads, particularly the events on Astra (in no small part, I'm sure, because the names of the characters were familiar and I could keep them straight).  But there were lots of things that I wished had been developed more, lots of details that needed to be explained for me to feel comfortable in the narrative.  For example, it wasn't until 3/4 of the way through that the novel explained that the portals changed the form of the person passing through them to fit the planet they are traveling to.  Sure, I figured something like that had happened, but I spent a lot of time wondering about the exact mechanic--time that I wasn't immersed in the events of the story the way I could have been.  Now, I'm not asking West to pull a Pat Rothfuss, a George R.R. Martin, or a Stephen King, but at 261 pages, The Chosen feels a little light for the epic fantasy that it seems like it's trying to be.  Given the number of characters and the variety of settings, much more time and space could have been taken to really develop the worlds within the series, describe the inhabitants of these worlds, and make the reader feel at home within the story.

And so this is why, even though The Chosen is clearly a novel about portals, it ended up feeling much more like what Mendlesohn calls "immersive fantasy"--that is, a fantasy in which the reader is just thrown in without any sort of explanation or guide to the strangeness of the world.  This strangeness ends up clashing a bit with the epic structure of the series, but for those who are willing to work to decipher the strange, it can be interesting and more than a little fun.

By Jen Miller