Portal fantasies are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m not entirely sure what got me into this particular subgenre of fantasy, but I’m reasonably certain that I got interested in it when I first watched the anime Magic Knight Rayearth when I was in grade school. I know that some people would be surprised to learn this: after all, when people think of portal fantasy, most people would immediately point to the Narnia Chronicles, or perhaps Alice in Wonderland. But I did not pick up the Narnia books until I was in high school, and I did not realise Alice in Wonderland could be considered a portal fantasy until I was in university.
Therefore, most of my notions about portal fantasy have been shaped by anime: Magic Knight Rayearth first, then Fushigi Yuugi when I was in high school. As a result, I tended to imagine portal fantasy as being a particularly “female” subgenre: schoolgirls going into other worlds to save aforementioned worlds from impending disaster. It was only later I realised that, yes, the male half of the species also did get to slide into other worlds and have adventures of their own, but by the time I found this out I was not all that interested in reading about boys in this context. After all, most of the protagonists in fantasy are male, and they seem to need no further help finding the kind of action and adventure girls seem to. When I read portal fantasy, I do so because I want to read about people like me: women (and girls) escaping from a world that would not or could not give them the purpose and fulfilment they deserved and craved, finding it instead in a world (or worlds) that would.
The above is part of the reason I was drawn to Foz Meadows’ novel An Accident of Stars, the first book in the Manifold Worlds series. The other part is that I am always happy to read anything that will take me out of my current existence for the time being, and what better way to accomplish that than by reading about some other person getting sucked into another realm and dealing with the consequences?
That is precisely how An Accident of Stars begins. Saffron Coulter is an ordinary high school student, dealing with the harsh realities of being, well, in high school. In her case, that means dealing with a perverted bully whose idea of fun is snapping bras, lifting girls’ skirts with metal files, and just generally being a creep. But when she receives unexpected help from a woman she presumes is applying to be a teacher, Saffron goes looking for this mysterious woman in order to thank her – but in doing so, manages to follow the woman through a portal and into another world entirely: a world known as Kena. And whether she wants it or not, Saffron is about to get caught up in a conflict that could see her home – or see her dead.
One of the things I enjoy most about portal fantasy is reading about how the protagonist manages to survive in a world that might be completely different from the one he or she knows. In some portal fantasies, this happens fairly easily, especially if the world-hopping protagonist assumes the role of a prophesied saviour. While there is some fun in that, I tend to prefer it if the protagonist actually has trouble integrating – not only because it makes better sense in my head, but also because it allows the writer to expand upon this new world in a way that makes info dumps less superfluous and more necessary.
Meadows takes full advantage of that in the first third of this novel, and at other, necessary points thereafter. As Saffron gradually finds her place in Kena, Meadows paints a world that inverts all the standard tropes of fantasy – and many of the standard conventions of the real world, for that matter. Take, for example, the Kenan approach to marriage and the many different variations on human sexuality:
“Not quite. For us, it’s just one person at a time – I mean, not everyone actually does that, but lots of people still think you should, and that it should only ever be boys with girls, never boy-boy or girl-girl. Lots of people don’t agree with that last bit, though, but it’s still illegal in a lot of places.” It felt like a ridiculously infantile way of explaining it, but then she was talking to a grinning tween in a foreign language facilitated by magic, which probably counted as extenuating circumstances.
“You marry like the Kamne?” Zech sounded aghast. “But that’s barbaric!”
“I guess it is,” said Saffron, not wanting to argue, but just as equally disquieted by the possibility that maybe Zech had a point.
Here’s another one:
Gwen had never felt romantic love, and once upon a time, before Trishka assured her otherwise, she’d wondered if that meant there was something wrong with her. Such worried had died out years ago; nonetheless, the fact that her marriage-mates extended their romance to Gwen while accepting her feelings never ceased to be warming.
I may have mentioned in my other reviews how weary I am of the tropes and conventions that dominate so much of fantasy and young adult literature. To see those ideas inverted in this novel is not only refreshing, but heartening – especially since this is a fantasy novel. Fantasy has always had a problem with representation, but recently there have been more and more writers working to correct it. It’s clear Meadows is entirely aware of the problem, and actively works against it in her world-building. Most of the characters are not white; most of them appear to be, on the surface, bisexual (pending further revelations in later books to narrow down the specific nuances of their sexuality); and most of them are women – all the complete opposite of the typical epic fantasy novel, or the typical young adult novel, for that matter.
But all of the world-building would not really matter if the world itself is not populated by interesting characters, and again Meadows does exceedingly well in this department. I am especially fond of Yasha, a Vekshi matron who wields power in ways that are not particularly noble, but effective regardless:
“I’m a respectably settled matron.”
“Not the words I’d have chosen,” said Gwen, “unless, in my absence, respectably, settled and matron have suddenly become synonymous with smuggler, spy and politically devious expatriate.”
This is emphasised later on in the novel:
“… Well, as you say, it’s a mess that needs fixing. … But the fixing will be dirty; it will be underhand and bloody, not like those oh-so-glorious days at court, when all you did was talk and smile and maybe, if you could spare a moment, think.
“You, worldwalker, you only pretend to live here. With your mouth you say, Karavos is the city of heart, but in your head, you remain an alien creature; you wish to love our world, but only on your terms. Hah! Ashasa forbid you should feel the blood on your hands, or suffer the weight of knowing it won’t scrub off. And do you know what? I don’t care thorns or godshit for your problems, the big ugly why that drives you. But at my table, in this house, if you wish to join our treason, then you will have the simple godslapped courtesy to call it by its name. If I call for a coup, Gwen Vere—” and here Yasha raised her staff, prodding it into the soft flesh of Gwen’s throat, “—you do not contradict me.”
If the above makes Yasha come across as unlikeable, then that is an entirely accurate assessment. But I like her not because of who she is as a person, but because of what she is as a character: a cunning, manipulative older woman who will stop at nothing to tip the balance of power in her favour – and whose motives I understand, even sympathise with a little. I might not like her hunger for power, but I can appreciate why she did what she did in her past, and why she does what she does throughout the novel.
While I have something of a soft spot for Yasha, the other characters, are a joy to read about: Saffron, in particular, because of the way she gradually grows and comes into her own towards the end of the novel, despite all the bad things that happen to her. In some other, less well-written portal fantasies, the person who enters the alternate world does not bend to the world he or she has entered; rather, it is the world itself that bends to him or her, yielding to his or her supposedly “better” ideologies. In this novel, Saffron is the one who has to bend to the world around her – and in doing so, grows up and becomes better than she was before. It’s not a painless journey by any means, but as with so many of the best coming-of-age stories, pain is a part of the process. While Saffron does not deserve much of what happens her, what matters is that she endures, and when it matters most, she steps up to the plate despite the danger and the pain that lie ahead of her.
The true highlight of this novel, however, is how it portrays the value of relationships: not only on the personal level, but on a much grander scale, too. Relationships are the engines that drive this novel’s heart: filial ties, friendships, and, yes, even romantic connections – all of them come together to make things happen in this story, to drive the plot forward and keep it moving until the very end. If there was one thing that really held my attention in this novel, and which I loved the most, it was reading how the characters worked through their relationships with each other – and in Saffron’s case, how she created her own ties to the people around her, and how, in one very important moment in the novel, those ties came together to bring about immense change. “Love conquers all” seems like such a tired, trite old truism, but in the case of this novel, it feels relevant and sincere – even when it breaks the reader’s heart.
Overall, An Accident of Stars is an amazing read: one I did not think I would love as much as I do. Set in a world that challenges the current stereotypes and conventions dominant in epic fantasy, and featuring characters that feel real and interesting, it is the kind of portal fantasy – indeed, epic fantasy – that I wish there was more of available in the world today, and the kind I hope to write, eventually. I look forward to the next book, which in my opinion cannot come out soon enough.