Portal of a Thousand Worlds was my first approach to Dave Duncan’s prolific production, and it ended up being a surprisingly involving read. The novel can be labeled as historical fantasy and is set in an alternate version of China, probably in the late 19th, early 20th Century: the rebellion of the Bamboo Banner adepts sounds quite similar to the real Boxer rebellion that flared up between 1899 and 1901, and here it serves as a useful time indicator.
The story follows several narrative strands that move, slowly but inexorably, toward the final confluence: one of the first characters we meet is Tug, a malnourished street urchin who is taken in by the Grey Helpers, a quasi-religious brotherhood dedicated to the handling of the dead and their speedy transition to a higher plane of existence. What the Grey Brothers really are, however, resembles more a secret society with financial and political goals and the patience to wait even for generations to accomplish them: here the former hungry child, who will later on take the name of Silky, learns how to deal with the dead – including how to remove the valuables placed by relatives on the bodies to secure their passage of the dear departed to the next level of existence – but also how to read and write, to cheat without being discovered, to change one’s appearance. And above all, how to kill without leaving a trace.
There is a sort of cheerful viciousness in the Grey Helpers that helps mitigate the truly horrible crimes they carry out, and I was often surprised at the way in which I was rooting for them – and particularly for Silky – to succeed in their endeavors: in a world where cruel exploitation and the lack of care for the less fortunate is the way of living, the Brotherhood almost takes on a Robin-Hood-like aura that is bound to elicit the reader’s sympathies, even taking into account that they steal to help themselves and not the poor… Silky himself possesses a kind of roguish nonchalance in everything he does, that makes it easier to forget how exploitative he gets – especially with women – in the pursuit of his goals: it’s something one tends to realize after the fact, while as the story is unfolding he’s able to focus the readers’ sympathies.
Another Grey Helper, novice Horse, earns his place in the spotlight as he finds himself enmeshed in a massive hoax, that of impersonating the current Emperor, a young man with serious mental damage who has been kept in seclusion by his mother, after she ruthlessly eliminated everyone who might have revealed that secret and who has been ruling the country from behind the virtually empty throne. The Empress finds herself in a quandary though, because the realms needs the heir her son is unable to produce, so she concocts the scheme that will bring Horse – who has gained the name of Butterfly Sword – to the imperial palace, playing a game that might see him dead once his usefulness comes to an end. This was one of the most fascinating threads in Portal of a Thousand Worlds, because it showed the political and power maneuvering that goes on in the imperial court, a contest of wills and strengths that could become quite deadly, but still is couched in the flowery prose and refined manners required by etiquette. You can hide a knife in an embroidered silk scarf, but it still remains a knife…
The third main point of view in the story is that of Sunlight the Urfather, a mystical being who is constantly reborn and retains the memories of all his previous lives: he’s closely tied to the titular Portal, a passage toward other realms that opens at certain intervals and always signals the end of the ruling dynasty and a period of upheaval. Sunlight (this is the name he uses in this particular incarnation) is currently a young man, imprisoned by the Emperor and forced, through torture and deprivation, to reveal the Portal’s secrets, but he always refuses, at great personal cost, until he is freed by a set of fortuitous circumstances and starts a journey across the land toward his ultimate destiny.
These narrative threads, carried by effective writing and a nice sense of pacing, are the backbone of the story and move it forward without a single slow moment, and are bolstered by a few side excursions into the journey of some minor characters, or the proceedings in the army of rebel Bamboo, who seeks to overthrow the ruling line and place himself in power. As the story progresses, we learn much about this fantasy version of old China, its politics, its customs and its peoples, and if not all that we learn is a pleasant discovery – the condition of women in particular was a sore point with me, because even taking into account the historical accuracy of it, it irritated me to see them devoid of any agency not closely tied to the use of sexual favors – nevertheless, we are carried along with an ease that makes this book a very positive reading experience.
That is… until the very end.
For starters, the end feels very abrupt in comparison with the massive buildup that preceded it: much of the story centers on the approaching opening of the Portal, and on the signs and portents that herald it – including a devastating earthquake that wreaks havoc across the land, laying the basis for famine and further death. The characters all act on the strength of this promised upheaval, whose precedents have been chronicled in the past, and in the end we see two huge armies, the Emperor’s and Bamboo’s, ready to engage in the battle of all battles in the plain facing the portal, with the future of the land resting in the victor’s hands. The characters’ journeys, the events that brought them all to this place and in this moment of time, create enormous expectations of a huge showdown, or an equally huge revelation, or both.
Sadly, none of this occurs: I can’t get into the details without incurring in a spoiler, but I can freely say that the “bang” I was expecting turned out to be less than the proverbial whimper, even the more-or-less happily-ever-after of the surviving characters being dealt with quite summarily, almost as an afterthought. To be quite honest, I felt cheated, not unlike those instances in which convoluted events turn out to have been just a dream, as many cheap TV shows have done in the past. On reflection, I considered that the author might have wanted to show the futility of human endeavors, the pointlessness of recorded history, the silliness of our desire for everlasting power – even if that was his intention, I did not appreciate the way he chose to showcase it.
So, it pains me to report that the solid 4-star read this book was until that moment, lost some points because of that choice.