Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Door That Led to Where

This needed to be at least twice as long as it was, and then it would have been a fantastic book.  As it is, it reads more like an outline or a rough draft of a stage play than anything, and coming off of Gardner's magnificent Maggot Moon, I felt profoundly disappointed.

The Door That Led to Where is a book about time travel.  I love books about time travel, whether plausible or implausible!  It's just a fun concept, period.  However, time travel inherently creates massive complications, which need to be sorted out in the narrative.  Instead of any sorting or explanation, these issues are just quietly swept under the rug in Where and we move on.

In fact, that's how I felt about most of the major plot developments.  They happened mid-paragraph and showed up without so much as a "How-dee-do?"  For example, at one point, the main character, AJ, thinks that he's lost the key that allows him to travel back in time.  Suddenly, I found myself in the next chapter and they were time traveling again.  I went back, and there was a very short exchange between him and a friend where the friend is all, "Hey, dude, found your key."  That's it?

Back to the beginning, though, for that's where we all should start.

AJ's life sucks.  He's failed all but one of his GCSEs (like SATs but British and scarier) and has pretty much zero hope at ever getting into uni, much less a decent job.  And it's not like his home life helps: after his dad disappeared, AJ's mum degenerated into a screaming, violent, loveless person.  Currently shacked up with her boyfriend, Frank, "a huge, blancmange slug-of-a-man," and mother of AJ's half-sister, the joyful family lives in a squalid flat in London.  AJ's mates are okay, but none of them really have prospects either.  These are the teens that society forgets and then vilifies.

Surprisingly, AJ receives an invitation to interview at a prestigious law firm in the City.  It turns out that his Mum knows one of the solicitors, so he goes.  Despite not having the proper clothing, he's given a job as an intern.  He's also given a name--his name--Aiden Jobey, which has, for some reason, been suppressed by his family.  He's only ever gone by AJ  Somehow ... this was not an issue in school because his mum was a harpy ... or something.


I mean, fine, this is a book with time travel in it!  I am suspending my disbelief!  But a really good speculative fiction is plausible where need be.

Anyway, while cleaning out a closet, AJ finds a curious key with his newly-discovered last name, Jobey, on the tag.  A mysterious old man, Professor Edinger, tells him where and how to use the key.  Being the not-at-all-suspicious kid that he is, AJ toddles off to a car park and concentrates really hard and whammo!  A magical door appears!  And it whisks him off to a townhouse in 1830s London!  Boo!

Wait, I'm supposed to say "Yay"?  Because in this presentation of Industrial Age London, things aren't so bad.  Sure, people never wash and smell like poo and starve in the streets, but isn't it simply marvelous that Charles Freaking Dickens is alive and writing Sketches by Boz?  Coincidentally (ha ha ha), Aiden's one passing GCSE was in English because of his love of reading, and Dickens in particular.  There's a point during his interview where his employer quizzes him on the opening lines of Dickens novels (easy ones, mind!  Like "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" easy) and then acts like AJ is the second coming of Einstein when he gets them all correct.  So how wonderful that Aiden is now in the same time period as Dickens!  Never mind that he has a sort of butler-keeper with a weird magpie and whose mum smells like cat pee!  Never mind that his dad was murdered here after finding this key that let him go back in time ... and stuff!


Even though AJ thinks that the 1830s are a cracking good time, he's commissioned by his butler to lock the time-door and get rid of the key.  On the other hand, one of his bosses, Mr. Baldwin tells him to keep the key and go through the time-door as much as he wants!  Wait, why does his boss know about this?  AJ doesn't really care!  He's actually figured out how to help out his friends, Dumb and Dumber.  Actually, their names are Liam and Slim.

Liam crosses a gangster and ends up with a price on his head, so A.J. hustles him through the time door, into a London inn, whereupon Liam promptly falls for the buxom widow running the place.  He expresses no desire to return to his own time, and starts completely messing with the time-space continuum by teaching the Londoners how to filter their water with charcoal so as to avoid next year's cholera epidemic.  When A.J. returns after this trip, he thinks, "Hey!  I could also stash my friend Slim in 1830s London!"

See, Slim did a stupid thing: he went out with a gangster's girlfriend, who then turned on him.  Duh.  So Aiden hauls his butt to 1830s London, too, but not before getting mauled by the bad dude's dog.  This means that Aiden is on crutches, which also seems to serve no narrative purpose other than he has to walk more slowly.




While on the other side, Aiden learns about how his grandfather and a business partner messed up time by taking snuffboxes back to real-time London and this is a Very Bad Thing and Aiden must shut the door to the other side Once and For All.  Thankfully, he manages to get out with his soon-to-be girlfriend, who adjusts to living in 2014 London ridiculously well.  The book just ... stopped at the end.  I think it was supposed to be shocking or thought-provoking, like The Giver, but I found it merely irritating.

There is so much about this book that puzzles me, to put it mildly.  Let me enumerate:

  1. Aiden's father was killed in 19th Century London after having fathered Aiden.  This creates a bit of a grandfather paradox: how does Aiden exist if his father dies in the past?  Dying in the past is dying in the past, no matter what you did or would do in the future.  So, are we talking about parallel universes here and not time travel?  Because slipping through a brane in the multiverse would allow for both Aiden Jobeys to exist or not exist simultaneously (I think).  
  2. How does Liam's water filter not break the rules of time travel?  If the whole household diligently filtered their water, they wouldn't be touched by the cholera epidemic that was to break out a year hence.  And wouldn't authorities be suspicious of an entire house left untouched?  What if there were people who would have died (pre-Liam's appearance) who then did not, and they had children?  How would that affect the future?
  3. How did Aiden's family come to possess this key in the first place?  How did Old Jobey (Aiden's grandfather) "first [go] through the door"?  
  4. Why in heaven's name would you run a black market cross-temporal trade in snuffboxes, of all things?

I suppose the point of this book was about finding your place in life, even if that place is almost two hundred years in the past.  But this had none of the quiet power of Maggot Moon, nor any of its creeping dread.  If I hadn't known that the same person had authored both books, I would never have guessed it.  Obviously, writers need not write the same type of book all the time, but the discrepancies in logic, plot development, and character development make me feel as though The Door That Led to Where was a short story that was stretched on the rack and tortured into becoming a novel.  

Skip this one and read Maggot Moon instead.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


2 comments:

  1. I bought my copy of this after hearing the author speak at the Reading Matters conference in Melbourne. I have to confess I enjoyed it. Her point, she said, was that people we think of kids in our era would have been out doing adult jobs back then. I have Maggot Moon on my iPad and will be reading it soonish.

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    1. I really did like the concept of the book, but I wish it had been longer! I love Sally Gardner but this was just too short for the scope of the book.

      Maggot Moon is absolutely marvelous. I still can't shut up about it. :D

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