This is a discussion of a fantasy novel, which ended up being weird enough in an experiential/literary way that I thought it worth some extended thought. Quite apart from anything else, it’s a pretty fun read, as fantasy novels go. Good prose, engaging characters, etc. If “magic assassins and court intrigue in fictionalized Qing-era China” sounds appealing, well, Portal of a Thousand Worlds will probably appeal. It will also be a bit disconcerting, for reasons that constitute the topic of this review. But overall I probably recommend it.
That said: I cannot talk about the things that make this book noteworthy without spoiling it in a very substantial way. I am not holding anything back. So, uh, don’t look below the cut unless you’re OK being spoiled. Go and read Portal of a Thousand Worlds first, if you think you might be interested.
In its last five pages or so, Dave Duncan’s Portal of a Thousand Worlds does something very strange. I don’t know what it’s like to encounter this if you know that it’s coming…but if you don’t, there’s a very strong sense of disorientation, and then an emptiness. Everything you’ve read up to that point, all this story that you have kicking around in your head, suddenly becomes flat and unreal.
Up until the end, PoaTW feels exactly like the first installment in a standard-issue fat-fantasy series. You’ve got your small handful of mostly-disconnected-seeing plotlines, seen through Fun and Diversely Charismatic POVs, exploring various interesting corners of the setting. There’s a good-hearted young assassin-monk who gets sent to impersonate/replace the severely-brain-damaged Emperor in order to forestall political crisis; there’s a self-interested antihero assassin-monk with a complicated scheme to acquire great wealth and power by insinuating himself into a rich merchant family, involving lots of sex and gladiatorial combat and fishy real estate transactions; there’s a soldier who gets caught up in a peasant rebellion; there’s a Mysterious Ancient Mystical Figure who knows Mysterious Ancient Mystical Secrets. Looming over everything is the titular Portal of a Thousand Worlds, the most Mysterious and Ancient and Mystical Secret of all, and portents suggest that it’s going to open very soon! At which point…something will happen! Something Mysterious and Ancient and Mystical!
I actually don’t mean to mock. This is a totally normal fat-fantasy setup. Throughout the book, it seems very much like the author is mostly putting the game pieces in position for the main action, which will presumably commence at the novel’s climax when the Portal opens (or when something else Big and Eventful happens). As the narrative goes on, we mostly spend our time getting the various sub-plots fleshed out, and seeing glimpses of how they might be relevant to each other when everything starts coming together. The fake Emperor is genuinely interested in doing as much good as he can, but he’s crippled by a corrupt court and by all the people who know his secret! The peasant rebellion, which becomes increasingly sketchy-seeming as we see more of it, is clearly going to throw China into chaos! The antihero assassin dude is hanging out, and doing lots of complicated things, in the immediate vicinity of the Portal! It is very clear that, when the plot explodes, everyone will be well-situated to have memorable high-stakes interconnected adventures.
The immediate buildup to the final scene is absolutely textbook. The fake Emperor, at the head of an army, is confronting the rebellion in the shadow of the Portal; the Ancient Mystical Guy is there, pushing people’s character-development buttons; the antihero assassin, admittedly, doesn’t have all that much to do, but he’s (fraudulently) become the lord of a super-fortified castle right in the area, and it seems likely that he’ll become very relevant very soon.
The Portal opens…
…and what follows is, basically, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story.
A very-poetically-described iridescent giant emerges from the Portal. The Ancient Mystical Guy, and one of his tagalongs, turn into iridescent giants themselves; the three figures re-enter the Portal, which then closes. It is arranged and narrated in such a way that there are a plethora of resonant interpretations for the event — it might be a strange vision of the afterlife, or a metaphorical image of self-forgiveness, or a less-metaphorical image of Alien Astronauts Controlling Human History, or lots of other things.
The rebel army is, basically as an afterthought, scattered and destroyed by madness and by giants tromping around.
Immediate cut to a “credits sequence” in which we start viewing all the other major players from a historical distance. Turns out that the antihero assassin managed to stay lord of that castle his whole life, and his line hangs onto it until eventually someone loses it in a card game; various bit players are happy or unhappy; one guy writes a book about what happened; and in the end, everyone is completely forgotten except the fake Emperor, whose fakeness is never made known to the world at large. Boy howdy, the march of time makes fools of us all, and the things that seem important in the moment aren’t necessarily things that will be remembered. Fin.
Everything is wrapped up, in a very distant and philosophical sort of way. There is definitely no point to following the immediate action any further, in a sequel or any other format.
My immediate reaction, upon putting the book down, was: “…then why did you make me read all this?”
Because a whole lot of that fat-fantasy story-building never received any payoff or closure at all, and never will. The antihero assassin probably got more screen time than anyone else, and nothing he did had any serious impact whatsoever on the ultimate shape of things. If he hadn’t been in the narrative at all, it wouldn’t have made any difference. (Technically, I think, he provides safe passage for the Ancient Mystical Guy at one point near the finale. But that obviously could have been excised without changing anything; it feels like a fig leaf of “and he had a reason to be there too.”) The fake Emperor has a heartfelt and interestingly-complicated romance with one of his concubines; he makes all sorts of allies and enemies while he’s playing politics; and in the end, within the story we’re told, it all means nothing. So much detail, so much plot and characterization, and it all just…disappears.
The story part of the story, the part with action that rises and falls for a discernible purpose — the weird, mystical tale of a trapped immortal and his final journey beyond the world — could have been maybe fifteen or twenty pages long. The rest of it was fun to read, going through it, but looking back I can’t help feeling like it was a colossal waste of my time.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius of literary analysis to reply with: THAT’S OBVIOUSLY THE ENTIRE POINT, YOU FUCKWIT! THE AUTHOR PRETTY MUCH LOOKS INTO THE CAMERA AND TELLS YOU AS MUCH! DID YOU NOT NOTICE THAT THE FINAL MESSAGE IS “THE THINGS THAT SEEM IMPORTANT IN THE MOMENT AREN’T NECESSARILY THINGS THAT WILL BE REMEMBERED?” THIS WHOLE SETUP IS WHAT WE CALL A LITERARY DEVICE. IT IS MEANT TO MAKE YOU UNDERSTAND, VISCERALLY, HOW TIME AND DISTANCE MAKE THINGS STOP MATTERING. YES, ALL THOSE PLOT POINTS JUST DISAPPEAR INTO NOWHERE, WITHOUT ANY SATISFYING RESOLUTION. THAT’S WHAT LIFE IS LIKE.
That might have been the auctorial intent! Or it might not. I don’t know. To me, Portal of a Thousand Worlds feels suspiciously like the victim of a crunched and desperate editing process, as though the author suddenly learned (or decided) that he would have to wrap everything up in one book. If it was all deliberate, then I applaud Dave Duncan’s willingness to write pretty much the entire first book of a pretty-good fantasy series just to screw with his readers’ expectations…and also his ability to sneak a monstrously subversive project like this past his publishers. In any event, it doesn’t matter much. Whether or not the book was meant to be a literary gambit, it can certainly be understood as one, in a totally coherent and sensical way.
So maybe it would be right, and proper, for me to be responding to it with admiration. “Ha ha, you sure fooled me! I got punched hard in the narrative expectations, and now I’ve learned a valuable lesson about impermanence!”
I do not seem to be responding that way. I am annoyed. I have a strong sense that this book did something bad. Even after lots of meditative reflection, even after acknowledging the clever intertwining of form and content.
And it’s not that I dispute, or resent, the time-crushes-everything message. I like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” a lot! I am moved to sentimental tears by the exact same message when Guy Gavriel Kay embeds it in his (non-abortive, normally-constructed) stories! Hell, taken on its own, I even like the ending of Portal of a Thousand Worlds itself!
Maybe I’m just grumpy, and react poorly to feeling like I’ve been jerked around, even if it was done in a good cause. Honesty compels me to admit that much. But I feel like my reaction here is justified — that I am wroth, not merely on my own behalf, but on behalf of Art. This is worth some thought.
So it seems clear that the issue with this book, to the extent that there is an issue, lies somewhere in the rough neighborhood of “broken contract with the reader.”
Every story, in every medium, walks a balance between fulfilling the reader’s expectations and subverting them. Most commonly, there are very few real surprises at all — mostly fake-surprises, which create an artificial sense of tension in the gut, even though they present no challenge whatsoever to the intellect. “Will Batman be able to foil the villain-of-the-week this time?” “Will the brooding earl and the feisty beautiful maiden ever give in to their overwhelming sexual chemistry?” Gosh, I don’t know.
But, of course, texts can legitimately surprise us. It happens all the time. And not all surprises are created equal.
As a first approximation, I offer the following four-tiered taxonomy of literary surprise, with each tier representing (in theory) the subversion of a deeper and more-profound kind of expectation:
1. Surprises that fit comfortably within the narrative genre, but are uncommon because they represent unusual plot movements. “Gee, I wonder whether Frodo is going to give in to the corruption of the One Ring, that sure seems like how this story is going to end — oh, wait, huh, he actually did. Wow. Hardcore. I really thought that was going to go the other way. I guess he’s a bad guy now…aaaaaaaaand, OK, that’s how that gets wrapped up.”
2. Surprises that violate tacit meta-narrative conventions of the genre, but keep faith with the genre’s basic rules and conceits. The best example I can think of here is the death of Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones. (I mean, uh, oops, SPOILER WARNING FOR A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE.) There’s no actual reason that a gritty medieval fat-fantasy series can’t kill off its apparent protagonist in the first book. The rules of the world totally allow for it, and the [multi-POV] story goes on just fine. But it’s a bit of a shock when it happens, because we expect that protagonists will have plot armor, that they won’t die in stupid ways at non-climactic moments.
3. Surprises that violate the basic rules and conceits of the genre. I haven’t read The Expanse, but a friend of mine describes it thus: “Imagine that, in Season 3 of The West Wing, they find a portal to Narnia in Leo’s office. Everyone goes through, and the rest of the show drops the White House politics to follow the characters’ adventures in a fantasy realm. Oh, and Josh Lyman dies, but it’s OK because he lives on as a voice in Sam Seaborn’s head. If you think you can put up with that kind of genre whiplash, you’ll like this series.” This is the realm of fantasy that suddenly turns out to be science fiction (where the magic is really lost alien technology or some such). Also the realm of “…and it was all a dream!”
4. Surprises that violate the basic rules and conceits of the medium itself. Underlying all the content and the genre conventions, literary forms have their own suites of basic Gricean maxims, which provide an essential infrastructure for the communication of stories. Y’know, things like “the movie will eventually end rather than looping indefinitely.” Or “the page numbers are not relevant to the plot, they sit outside the sphere of narrative.” Or “you should follow the game directions, they are designed to lead to a satisfying experience.” Or “every sequence of events is there for some concrete reason, it’s all somehow relevant to the broader story being told, the author isn’t just shoving random pointless things in front of the audience.” And, of course, there are works that break even these foundational rules. They’re not common, and they tend to have a memorably “arthouse” flavor, because the thing they’re doing is necessarily very weird. Obvious examples include Tristram Shandy (where the author is gleefully just shoving random pointless things in front of the audience) and The Stanley Parable (where the author treats the game directions as a form of sinister manipulation that can, and probably should, be resisted).
As you move down through the layers of surprise, you run greater risks with your audience. Profound surprises can work wonderfully, but they can also result in massive frustration. Ned Stark’s death was, uh, polarizing; certainly many readers felt angry and hurt by it. Surprise wholesale genre shifts can be super-awesome if they strike you in the right way — I know that I want to watch that hypothetical West Wing / Narnia crossover thing — but if they don’t, there’s a profound sense of betrayal. Genre rules and conventions are there for a reason. They allow the audience to satisfy essential psychic hungers. You come to a story for a particular kind of experience. You may want to be surprised or at least fake-surprised, but only in certain ways, and on some basic level you have expectations that you’re hoping to fulfill. If you’re lied to, such that you get something unpleasantly different…well, you choke on this unexpected thing that’s being rammed down your psychic gullet. It offends.
How much respect should we have for that kind of offense?
Not complete respect. I’m pretty sure of that. The audience should not be swathed in cotton-wool. Art can do many important things, but one of the most important of all is that it can provide a jolt of barrier-shattering insight to the mind, and this is often best achieved through disturbing narrative surprises. “You were cheerfully going along with treating those orcs like Always Chaotic Evil non-morally-salient beasts, but surprise! they’re people just like you, and you should feel terrible!” “You were happy to let that princess serve as a stand-in for All That Is Desirable, but surprise! she’s shallow and horrible when you get to know her, and maybe you should have been thinking about her as an actual person from the get-go!” It would be very sad indeed if we didn’t allow art to serve this kind of function.
But there’s a kind of tragedy-of-the-commons situation going on here. Genre expectation is a valuable resource. It’s valuable because the genre rules, played straight, provide resonant stories that allow people to sate their psychic hungers; this is a thing that matters. It is also valuable because subversive surprises rely on the straightforward un-subverted versions of themselves in order to achieve the proper effect. If there’s too much subversion, and not enough conventional genre text, the expectations fail and the genre dies. And that’s no good for anyone.
(We’ve seen this happen a lot, recently, at least with individual tropes. “Brave princess who can take care of herself” used to be a powerful and resonant idea, a subversion of the traditional damsel in distress; now it’s as bland as porridge, because basically no one writes damsels in distress anymore, and no one is remotely surprised to see a girl with a sword kicking ass. You can see a similar evolution with “the nerd is really the hero!”)
You actually don’t often see catastrophic failures arising from Level 4 surprises. As far as I can tell, this is because of the arthouse effect. Any work featuring a Level 4 surprise is overtly weird enough that its weirdness will be heavily advertised, and the audience will be specifically hoping to engage with that. No one picks up Tristram Shandy imagining that it’s going to be a memoir of some guy’s Very Interesting Life. No one thinks that The Stanley Parable is going to be an experience filled with exploration and plot and gripping gameplay.
…but Portal of a Thousand Worlds has actually managed to disguise itself as a totally normal fantasy novel. You, dear reader, have been forewarned. (Assuming you didn’t go consume the book before reading this essay.) But I was smacked in the face with the full force of a Level 4 Gricean-maxim-denying surprise. I read through 500 pages only to be summarily informed that, because time destroys all things, it’s vain and futile to expect that stories will go anywhere. And I imagine that any number of similarly-ill-informed fantasy fans had the same experience.
There was real value in that subversion, real art. I don’t deny it. It sure made me feel, deep in my stomach, that we are all history’s bitches. Even “Ozymandias” doesn’t hit quite that hard.
But unmarked Level 4 surprises are playing around with more dangerous forces than their lesser cousins. They, too, are exploiting a tragedy of the commons…but the commons in question is literature itself.
For the next while at least, whenever I try to dive into any story, there’s going to be a little voice in my head asking whether I should be allowing myself to do that — whether it really makes sense to believe that this narrative-shaped object will in fact prove to be a narrative, whether I can count on it to fulfill its basic functions of complication and exploration and resolution. For the next while, I’m going to be unable to forget that the Gricean laws of storytelling are in fact ungrounded in objective reality, and that we can break them whenever we want.
Stories are important. They may be the most important technology we’ve ever developed. Because we have confidence that stories work in a particular way — in particular, because we believe that a thing in a story has meaning — we can love ourselves, and know beauty, and be happy.
Portal of a Thousand Worlds destroys that confidence, a little bit, for the sake of getting to make its point in a very clever and effective way.
One such text isn’t going to do any real harm, of course. But it doesn’t seem like we should be encouraging authors to make that kind of move.