by Terence Taylor
Someday someone will write a novel with a teenage protagonist who’s smart, savvy, secure in his or her own skin and popular, and I will never read it. To me the happy well-adjusted kids are the enemy in most fiction, whether written for Young Adults or not. The conflict that drives most good stories is in the lives and heads of the outsiders, the characters who are as different and distinctive as their readers. Maybe someone’s written that other book already in mainstream fiction, I haven’t seen it — Pippi Longstocking always seemed annoyingly upbeat, but was obviously an insane anarchist. Anne of Green Gables was orphaned, and even life at The Little House on the Prairie was no picnic.
Most kids in genre novels lead dark lives as they make their way into the light, even if the darkness is only internal. I loved that Harry Potter was introduced living in a closet under the stairs, as if he’d been shoved away in storage with other unwanted objects or unpleasant memories. I, too, was an unhappy adolescent, so I naturally gravitate to tales of my kind. There is much in the two Tor.com Publishing novellas I read this month I would have enjoyed back then, for a multitude of reasons.
I recently threw together a late night snack in a dark kitchen to take to bed while reading, twin scoops of ice cream in a bowl with what I thought was chocolate syrup poured over it. When I put a spoonful in my mouth, instead of chocolate over ice cream, it lightly burned my tongue, tasted spicy and sweet, startlingly different than expected. By reflex or morbid curiosity I ate a second spoonful, as unrecognizable as the first, while my brain scrambled to explain the experience.
Back in the kitchen I turned on the light as I should have in the first place, and realized that instead of the plastic jar of chocolate syrup I’d grabbed the mint cilantro chili sauce. I dumped the bowl into the sink and made what I’d intended, but that initial smack of the unexpected stuck, and as I reconsidered it later, was a surprise with an odd attraction. Both of these novellas have a similar moment when the expected progression is flipped, not entirely without precedent in this kind of narrative, but done in a way that forces you to regain your bearings and re-enter both stories to their benefit.
The first, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, is set on a future Earth where a young woman of college age from an intuitively technical tribal society has decided to accept an academic offer she can’t refuse even though it’s against her family’s wishes. She packs in secret and runs away in early morning to board a starship that will take her to Oomza University and the best education in the galaxy. What is meant to be flight quickly turns to fight as she struggles to survive the trip, facing down invading Meduse, an alien race with a long held but legitimate grievance she ultimately sets out to right. They resemble airborne jellyfish, trailing deadly tentacles, driven only by revenge until Binti finds a way to communicate with them, the first human to do so, or seemingly even to try. That conflict might be better resolved with communication instead of killing is one of many messages that rise naturally from the narrative without ever hitting you over the head. There isn’t much more I can say about the plot without ruining it for you.
In Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, the protagonist, Nancy, is also on her way to a new school. A part of me grumbled, “Why are they always in a school?” as I immediately reminded myself that it was like asking, “Why do they always have jobs?” of an “adult” novel. It is where you are and what you do at that age, unless that absence is part of the story.
The specialty school in genre fiction, whether supernatural, scientific, or super heroic, is a popular trope as well-worn as the mysterious vanishing shop selling sinister objects. It takes equal extra effort to pull off effective variations, and both of these institutions manage to stand on their own. This book’s particular peculiar establishment is Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a sanctuary for kids who stumbled onto, and entered, doors to magical worlds. These remedial revenants were either thrown back, or left with every intention of returning, but proved unable to find their way “home”.
They all consider the other place to be where they felt right, no matter how wrong it would seem to their fellows or us. That like draws to like, and that the portals opened to each child contained some aspect of their own nature within is one of the aspects of the book that appealed to me. Nancy’s visit was to the somber and silent Halls of the Dead, where she had been working her way up the social ladder from tableau vivant to lady-in-waiting to the court of the Lord of the Dead and his Lady of Shadows. His enchanted touch had been enough to turn her hair white except for the streaks of deepest black where his fingers had run through her locks in admiration. Her lost land sounded to me like a living Edward Gorey illustration, and there was a time in my youth when I would have gladly lived there.
Living in Queens in the seventies, I was obsessed from an early reading age with the idea of magical doorways that could afford me immediate release from the everyday. I often dug through debris in the almost hidden back storage room in my grandmother’s attic, filled with odd objects like an electric muscle stimulator in a gray metal case, and elastic exercise bands, secretly sure my own private Narnia was lurking somewhere in there for me. I’d read all the books, knew all the tropes, but still found no escape hatch except in reading about them.
Despite my childhood love of his books, I enjoyed how easily C.S. Lewis is dismissed by one character — “Narnia was a Christian allegory pretending to be a fantasy series, you asshole,” sure they were based on real journeys. “He wanted to tell a story, and he’d probably heard about kids like us, and he made shit up.” Narnia’s not how things really work, we’re told. This is the real world is a falsehood often asserted by fictional characters and it’s the reader’s cue to forget how things work in other fictions, that we are entering new terrain.
Novellas are structurally interesting to me in that they have more breadth than short stories, but a more narrow focus than full-length novels. Both of these stories cover a specific event in the characters’ lives, in depth, with the immediate consequences, but both present worlds rich enough to warrant further exploration. Binti’s changes and how they affect her integration into university life are as open to new adventures as Nancy’s, or even those of the school and other students. The Wayward Children #1 subheading on the Tor webpage for the book seems to indicate that saga will continue.
The books also share an interesting representation and understanding of difference and its actual effects on individuals, rather than cliché. Binti’s race is dark, in subtle civilized conflict with a light-skinned race in her homeland. Their attitudes shape and define her only in Binti’s rejection of their view of her, her people, and her potential.
In Every Heart a Doorway the largely female population of McGuire’s novella is transgender in part, with a boy born a girl and kidnapped by fairies that rejected him when they realized his true inner nature. Kade, formerly Katie, is rejected by both Fairyland and his family for not being the girl they wanted him to be, in contrast with cross-dressing Jack, twin sister to Jill, who unlike Kade, is referred to with female pronouns, and despite her masculine traits and style seems to see herself as physically female, too wrapped up in science to concern herself with mere gender identity, while Nancy is blithely asexual. How they all communicate these nuances to each other over the course of the novella is a delicate dance that acts as a good example of how to do it in real life.
The search for self lies at the center of both narratives, just as it is at the core of most adolescent angst. Binti carries a jar of handmade local clay from home that she uses to color her skin and hair, and how to replace it when it’s gone is as important to her and her story as Nancy’s wardrobe is to hers. How we present ourselves is part of who we are; losing that familiar surface alters our interior. I enjoyed meeting both young women and expect to see them again.
One last word about the dangers of the Marvel Unlimited App, even on a used iPad 2 retina screen — there is nothing more addictive, nothing I tell you, and this column’s deadline has more than once been all that could drag me away from it to read books. Be warned. It is a controlled substance that needs to be personally regulated by each user to keep it from taking over your life. When you realize you’ve read over 500 issues of Uncanny X-Men in a month, you know it’s time to seek help. My mother used to yell at me for sneaking a flashlight under the covers to read comics after she put me to bed. She would weep to see me now. I’m going to lick this… right after the next digitized issue of Deadpool…
Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. As an author of fiction, his first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was one of a handful of authors to be included in the next two volumes, with “The Share” in Voices from the Other Side and “Wet Paint” in Whispers in the Night. Terence is also author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy: Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. After a two-year hiatus he has returned to the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. Find him on Twitter @vamptestaments.