“I helped him advance on the staircase of worlds.”
A pretty euphemism for assassination, no?
The Good Land lives for centuries at a time without serious threat to its traditions. Each dynastic emperor rules from The Heart of the World, unseen by the masses and advised by his eunuchs. Periodically, rebellions protest the power of the emperor’s “usurper” mother, who appears to rule the throne; fortunately for the ruling class, the only real competing power lies with “The Grey Helpers” of “The Houses of Joyful Departure”—you guessed it, an assassin’s guild 😉
But the emperor takes fearful notice when the Man of a Thousand Lives reappears, a man who is reincarnated cyclically through the ages to share the wisdom of the prophets about the Portal of a Thousand Worlds. This time, the Man of a Thousand Lives prophesies the opening of the Portal. As the auguries pile up, the powerful grow nervous, for the Portal always brings great changes to the Good Land. Dynasties end and natural disasters rock the land.
The changes rarely favor the powerful. The Portal of a Thousand Worlds is adult epic fantasy/alternate history authored by Dave Duncan and published February 14th 2017 by Open Road Media Science & Fantasy. Duncan also authored The King’s Blades and The Seventh Sword series.
Portal of a Thousand Worlds feels like the sort of book that might take a lifetime to write—tightly plotted and cast, fully-developed in setting and characterized by the sort of raucous, racy and word-perfect humor that enlivens what might otherwise be considered a grim Chinese political fantasy.
The conflict between Emperor’s family and the rebels is the main focus of the book. Every so often, the focus slides back to the Man of a Thousand Lives (also known as the “Firstborn” or the “Urfather”) and his mysterious agenda; but basically every other narrator (and there are many) focuses on the palace intrigue. Most of the narrators are either nobility or Grey Helpers, and from them we learn delicious details of both palace life and the inner workings of the assassin’s guild. It’s like a very (very! Wonderfully! Atmospherically!!) Chinese Game of Thrones.
The story builds to address the climactic mystery of The Portal. Only rumors survive about its opening in centuries past, and nobody knows why. But everyone wants to know, of course—so they ask the Firstborn, who currently resides in the body of a fourteen year old peasant boy named “Sunlight.” But even he doesn’t know much—he always gets assassinated before the Portal itself opens.
So everybody watches and waits, anxious about the opening of the great portal.
My favorite part of Portal is the delightfully wicked and ever-present humor. Clever verbal gymnastics, situations that lurch sideways and riotous personality humor kept me giggling throughout the book. The Firstborn himself trademarks his own running joke, sharing hilarious anecdotes or reprimands about the confusion surrounding past philosophical teachings.
On top of the humor, surprises show up on every page. Tensions run high with conflicting character agendas, sudden tips in power, deaths, magics and all kinds of other ingenious plot twists. I was never bored. Certain portions could have probably been trimmed to shorten the book—I didn’t expect to take two weeks to read this ARC; but every page was honestly a pleasure to read.
The ending may disappoint readers who enjoy the concrete answers often found in a hard-fantasy like Brandon Sanderson’s stories; nevertheless, I found it to be profoundly touching and everything I didn’t know I wanted. I love the theme about how the passage of time can affect religion and public perception of religion. The religion also serves justice in a rather unique way…
The limitations of the female sex may also bother some readers. Life is unapologetically rough for all but noblemen (emphasis on the “men”), in this early 1800s-like Chinese fantasy. Women can gain only a little power, and only by birthing sons; as such, every female with a modicum of power spends or has spent time as a prostitute or concubine. If feminism is a touchy issue for you, you might consider the female situation anything from boring to grating; I took off half a star for the disturbingly obvious lack of strong, unique female heroines. But thankfully despite the limits on female power, I enjoyed the female characters as much as the heroes in this one. The range of personalities is both vast and entertaining. (My favorite character, Horse, grew up in a House of Joyful Departure where females get just as much opportunity and have just as much success as males. He is one of the few men who respects women outside the bedroom…and you might like where his arc leads, and what it promises for the future of the Good Land.)
I thoroughly enjoyed Portal. The humor and inventiveness far outweigh any negative considerations. It’s billed as a Chinese Game of Thrones, which seems like a fair description. (You might take this with a grain of salt, as I’m only familiar with book 1 + season 1 of GoT.) Occasional short action scenes pop up, but mostly as humorous or dramatic beats. The book is much more about politics and power than about the magic or even the Portal, really.
Recommended To :
Anyone looking for a hilarious and political epic fantasy with a Chinese twist. Not recommended to feminists. Slight content warning for younger readers, there’s some violence and a loooooot of sex, haha. I don’t recall anything too dramatic, but sex is probably mentioned on every other page, in some form or another (often as a device of humor).
Thank you so much to Dave Duncan, Open Road Media Science & Fantasy and Netgalley for this amazing ARC of Portal of a Thousand Worlds!