Review: A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow

This is fifth review of the Nebula Award nominees in 2019. You can see the full list of short story nominees here. Scroll down for some of the other reviews this year or search by title. 

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow is well written and well worth your time to read, but I want to get one small criticism out of the way right up front. The title is totally misleading. There is a compendium, and it plays a critical role at the end, but that is not the point of the story. Also, the arcane tone conveyed by the title doesn’t reflect the contemporary setting of the story subject. Ok, on to larger topics.

The story, in a nutshell, is from the perspective of a librarian who is also a witch (or vice versa). She sees unhappy people in her library from time to time and wants to help them, though there are rules about witch’s not giving people magical information that her kind have compiled over the centuries. In this story, there is a particular youth, an African American boy, who the narrator believes is having a difficult time and is seeking magic in this world and/or a portal to another one. The question is, does the narrator break the rules to help the child or not?

The story’s world is highly believable due to its familiarity. We all know the smell of books, the promise of new and sometimes obscure, almost secret knowledge that browsing library shelves inspires. We also know public libraries can be places of refuge from the sturm und drang of daily life, even now in the digital age. An interesting mix of contemporary and old-fashioned qualities that give the story a timeless quality, and the writing itself is clear and well-paced.

On my first read, I thought this was a quaint, simple story without surprises but a relatively happy ending. I’m fine with such stories as long as the plot is rich and the outcome uplifting and/or meaningful. Upon further consideration, however, the story distressed me.

Here you have a witch who evidently has some magical powers but relies almost exclusively on her humanish powers of observation to determine the distress of a young man to whom she never speaks more than a few words. Acting on such a nebulous source of information seems a) the foolhardy actions of an inexperienced person or b) outrageously dangerous. On second read, the friendly, caring librarian seems wildly irresponsible or arrogant about her capabilities–assured that there are worlds better than the one we live in and satisfied to have provided the conditions for someone to leave this world for another.

A boy disappears. He may not be missed, except by the readers who were introduced to him. We are supposed to identify with the librarian, but her thoughts and rationalizations for enabling this outcome are not developed enough for us to trust her judgment, and the story generally has not prepared readers for such a serious event erupting in its resolution.

Palm flat and 3.75 stars out of 5.

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