Foz Meadows’s Shattersnipe: Malcontent & Rainbows has been one of my favorite blogs for years. (Her post about Uprooted, published not too long after my own review of it on this website, forced me to confront the emotional abuse that lies at the heart of that novel, as well as the reasons I had willingly blinded myself to it.) In her nonfiction, she has an ability to fearlessly cut through bullshit in the service of better SFF and a better world more generally. An Accident of Stars, her first novel, does that for portal fantasy. It is a project that makes its investments explicit; it is equally as interested at whacking away at the problems of portal fantasy (and fantasy in general) as it is in constructing its own.
Portal fantasy comes with a great deal of problems and questions simply through the nature of its fundamental structure: somebody from our world, who is likely more similar to the reader than any other character by virtue of where they come from (or, at least, is supposed to be), goes to visit a strange, foreign land, either by accident or on purpose. They have adventures, and, eventually, come back, or at least report back. This means that the other world is filtered through the eyes of someone from our own. Margaret Atwood provides a formula for this structure in “Dire Cartographies,” an essay on utopia and dystopia. “As ustopia  is by definition elsewhere, it is almost always bracketed by two journeys: the one that transports the tale-teller to the other place and the one that transports him (or her) back so he can deliver his report to us” (p. 71). Atwood later labels this tale-teller “the reporter,” because they are the one responsible not only for having the journey, but for documenting it, translating it, packaging it, and transporting it back to us, where we can, with relative ease, learn of a place (or places) fundamentally different from the places we know.
Who is a portal fantasy written for, or to? A portal fantasy can be close to something like a travelogue—like Herodotus, we get to go visit a weird place, hear weird things about it, and write about it for our friends back home. It can be a misinterpretation, a bad translation. It can be in danger of placing an outsider in a role of power in a way that tastes a little bit too colonial. But portal fantasies can also subvert these things and examine them closely. This is what An Accident of Stars, I think, wants to do—and even though it may not always succeed, it is hugely exciting to see a book so invested in trying.
The portal journey we follow belongs to Saffron Coulter, a teenager suffering through high school in suburban Australia. The book opens on her coping with a sexist classmate who is utterly believable in his vileness. Saffron fights back admirably, but it bothers her; right away, we learn that she’s tough and clever, but certainly not immune to pain. A few pages later, we discover that a woman named Gwen Vere has, for some reason, arrived outside of Saffron’s high school in search of a magic portal. Gwen sees Saffron being bullied by her classmate, and, after scaring him off, hastily tries to come up with some words of advice for Saffron: “‘Life is hard. Some days we get our asses kicked, but apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know. Keep fighting’” (p. 16). Gwen is disgusted at herself, but Saffron is inspired, which leads to her impulsively following Gwen through the portal and into the country of Kena.
The novel’s scope expands fairly rapidly from there—we are (literally) dropped into the middle not just of a new world, but of its political and social conflicts. Getting a handle on things takes time, but, ultimately, the political machinations of the plot are not as important as the characters who are affected by it. Gwen, in league with a few other characters, was responsible for putting a ruler in charge who has turned out to be despotic; she is now dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of that choice. Zech, a quick, clever, androgynous-presenting girl of about twelve, is a ward of the Vekshi exile community that lives in Karavos (the capital city of Kena), whom Gwen is allied with. Zech is “shasuyakesani,” or born with mottled skin; the Vekshi (usually) have pale skin, like Saffron, and Kenans (usually) have brown skin, like Gwen. Like Gwen, Zech is a character who has learned to navigate between multiple different spheres, though she is not always comfortable in all of them. There are far more characters than this, all of whom are richly conceived and almost all of whom are women. (Most of them are queer, as well; I am less qualified to comment on how successfully the book executes this.)
As broad as An Accident of Stars’s scope is in terms of its politics and characters, it can only do so much. It seems to spend most of its energy on fleshing out a few places well instead of taking us on a grand tour of all the world at its disposal. Sometimes this is frustrating. The map at the front of the book feels sparsely populated and mismatched with the vibrancy of those parts of the world the book does cover, and I came away with less of a sense of what it’s like to live in Kena and Veksh, overall, than I was hoping for. At the same time, though, the book’s focus means that we get to know the people we do see, and the places they visit, fairly intimately. Even the characters whom we don’t get to see from the inside: Trishka (whose magic creates portals at the expense of her physical well-being), Luy (a member of the mystical order of the storytelling, worldwalking Shavaktiin, who helps Saffron and Viya both in real life and through dreams), and Matu (Zech’s Kenan tutor), feel not just alive, but deeply considered. Trishka is kind and perceptive, but strong as anything. Luy is a bit of a mystic, but is far more jumbled and spontaneous than he first seems. Matu, in his worst moments, can read as a too-direct subversion of the one girl who gets to be part of the team in far too many fantasy stories, and SF stories, too: hypercompetent though she may be, she’s really kept around because she’s hot. In his best moments, though, Matu is a skilled user of zuymet, a passionate political voice, and, above all, a caring and perceptive mentor. These are characters who have been created with empathy (with the possible exception of Leoden, the despotic ruler). Since this is a novel so concerned with empathy and nuanced consideration of other people, that focus is not only apt, but quite exciting.
It makes me wonder, though, how this focus on the inner lives of people might be matched with a focus on the nature of their environment. The majority of information we get about Kena and Veksh comes from two sources: Saffron, who is seeing both places for the first time, and Viya, a runaway wife of Leoden, who is seeing Kena from a vastly different point of view than she is used to. When we hear from characters who are familiar with the places where they live, the actual stuff of the world often becomes much less vivid. The passages of the book that are most vivid, I think, occur in the chapters where Saffron, Gwen, Zech, and the rest of their group have to negotiate with the Vekshi queens. The point-of-view characters are either thrown into places they have never seen before (particularly once Zech and Saffron’s trial begins), or are returning as exiles (Yasha). Kena, and particularly Karavos, feel … not bland, but vague. This is a quandary; on one hand, how can we come to know a place if we don’t know very much about it? On the other hand, how can we ask the people who live in a place to act as our tour guides?
Gwen is the character who is most often forced to play ambassador, since she is familiar with both Earth and Kena/Veksh, but even Gwen does not spend a great deal of time commenting on the physicality of the places she knows. The social mores and political entanglements she witnesses and experiences seem to be far more important to her. I am not sure why this is such a sticking-point for me (aside from the fact that my current academic research is centered around fantasy maps, so I have maps and spatiality on the brain). It is not something the novel does wrong; it is, instead, something the novel is not invested in to the same extent I might be, which raises questions about what that investment might look like, and how it might be done ethically.
It can be hard not to see Kena and Veksh in terms of our world, even though we should be taking them on their own terms. That’s a problem that the book addresses head-on, even if the book sometimes falls into participating in that problem. Social norms and ideas have consequences and as we start to understand those consequences, they become real. The differences between Kenan polytheism and Vekshi monotheism, gender roles in both Kena and Veksh, and the problems of political succession start to make sense to us. We feel them; we may even predict them. But Saffron, and even Gwen, come at these norms with their own sets of norms, as well as with an awareness of the pain and damage those norms can cause. The parallels are important (one passage where Gwen and Saffron talk about the Brixton riots stands out), but they can also verge on being a bit too stark. There are one or two times when Saffron learns a lesson about Earth in a way that seems a little bit too easy, or as if Kena is a little bit too convenient a mirror for Saffron’s own world. But it still means that the question of what these norms are, how they are formed, and how we work around them, gets pushed to the fore in a way that too many fantasy novels seem content to avoid.
Zuymet, or language-magic, is where the novel deals with this in perhaps the most interesting way. It is strange and difficult and takes time to implement properly. In that way, it is like Trishka’s portal magic—nothing in An Accident of Stars is free—but because it is so key to Saffron’s acclimation to Kena, and, later, key to the characters’ misadventures in Veksh, we get to see a lot more of it than we do of Trishka’s portal magic. Not all words get replaced, and learning pronunciation and concepts still takes time. It allows not just for a crossing of boundaries, but a forging of a new shared space—it brings Saffron closer into this new world, and Zech (whose zuymet Saffron uses) closer to the one Saffron has left behind, but the translation is never perfect. The act of trying to learn, and of trying to get closer to each other in a respectful way, creates a strong bond of friendship between Zech and Saffron. Later, that leads to Zech using Saffron as her proxy in a trial to claim her place as a Vekshi queen. This trial includes, among other things, surprise dragons, and is harrowing and painful and awesome. More to the point, though, it’s an example of how magic can be used to deal with questions and problems that exist in our world (and, probably, in any other world), while also forcing readers to cope with the unique problems of an otherworldly thing. It deepens into a connection so strong that it comes close to one of surrogacy, or metonymy, but without ever erasing the two parties involved. The way that zuymet is portrayed, in a way, allows us to enact it ourselves.
So, at the end of all of this, what is this journey An Accident of Stars takes us on, and what are we able to report back about it? Perhaps a more important question is: after receiving this report about a different world, what do we make of that world? The novel is invested in developing each character’s experience with specificity and nuance, but, somehow, the relationship between those experiences, the ranges of spaces to occupy that aren’t filled, the lands beyond what we see explicitly, are almost impossible to imagine because we know so little about them. In some ways, this is a sign of the book’s sense of responsibility towards its characters. However, I was still left wanting more of that in-between space, of those ambiguous places in the middle that zuymet, on its own, can’t cover. When Saffron calls Matu a “rock star,” Zech is bewildered, because zuymet doesn’t have the power to translate that idiom. There is a vast amount of space bound up in that gap.
So much about An Accident of Stars needs to be translated and talked through and understood—about history, and about personal experience. This is connected—at least for me—to a sense of physical place. I want to be able to push beyond the parts of the world that we see; I want to know that the rest of it is as real as what’s tangible to the characters in front of us. Because other people beyond those we know have their own stories, and are affected by the politics of Kena and Veksh. There are other places that these histories touch, and that come back to affect the places we do see. This is a novel fundamentally concerned with the question of how to welcome a wide range of people into the play and wonder that fantasy can offer. Either on its own would make reading it worthwhile; it’s the combination that makes the book what it is. I think this is why I wanted so much for Kena and Veksh to feel more tangible—because they belong to the characters we get to know … but also to ones we haven’t yet had the chance to meet.
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