Note: This is the first review of the 2017 Nebula Award nominees for short fiction. You can see the whole list here.
Well, here I am, starting off these reviews of all the nominated short stories published in 2016, and I’m going to irritate some readers and writers right away. This was not my intention, but I was really disappointed by “This is Not a Wardrobe Door” by A. Merc Rustad. It’s full of lovely images, and it might become a story–it might be part of a longer story–but it is not a story by itself.
Backing up, here’s the tale in a nutshell: Two friends, living in two different worlds, are seeking ways to return to each other. Ellie, the girl living in a world that seems to be the world as we know it, is particularly interested in re-entering her friend Zera’s world, which is quite fantastic and colorfully imagined.
They can’t find their ways back to each other but one continues to try the same kind of doorway over time. The other undertakes a journey to find the doorway and discovers other characters and forces that are blocking access. In the end, Ellie brings along others in our world who remember Zera’s world, and the force that was stopping passage relents. Everyone is reunited in Zera’s world.
I fully appreciate that sometimes plot does not figure prominently in a fantasy story. I can think of several examples where this holds true, including one of my favorite short fantasy stories from last year, “To Escape the Witch’s House” by Layla Al-Bedawi. When your story is not about things happening but about realization or illustration, the plot can be thin or stylized, but this is not what I learned from “This is Not a Wardrobe Door”.
The characters have some charm, but they are not learning anything or illustrating anything I can see beyond a generic appeal for acceptance of differences and the rewards for persisting in holding onto dreams.
Finally, here’s a question. Why, whenever we are in a story where someone goes from our world to another — nine times out of ten, our world sucks. It happened again in this story, and it indicates that the story is a vehicle for escape, though we never see what exactly is causing the characters to flee or why their world is so drab and lifeless. In this story we are asked to suspend disbelief to accept another world where boots are made of dewdrops and queens are birds that can fly you to the “Island of Stars”. Accepting these terms are challenge enough, but we are also asked to believe that life is hell for the story’s characters living in the world that looks like ours. Why life is so terrible is never spelled out. Was it because the characters were discriminated against and badly treated by others?
“Wardrobe” reads like a story written by an abused child for abused children, but I have no idea what truth the writer is trying to illuminate. If I have missed the whole point of this story, and I probably have, I hope someone can tell me what it is.
Thumbs down and 1 of 5 stars.