Book Review: The Keeper of Portals - VS Nelson

I've been sent advanced reading copies (ARCs) of books by publishers before, but this is the first time an author has contacted me directly to ask me to review their book! Exciting! So yes, the author sent me an advanced eARC in exchange for an honest review.

I am going to start with a bit of a rant about ebook formats, so if you want to jump straight to the review, click here.

A note on ebooks and PDFs

It has taken me longer than planned to read and review this book, partly because I've had a huge backlog of books to read, but also partly due to the format in which the book was sent. I am not anti-ebooks - they are super convenient and...well, that's the main selling point to be honest (this website lists 20 advantages, most of which can be condensed to "convenient"). I have been reading ebooks on my iPhone for a few years, and recently got my first dedicated eReader (as a leaving present when I left my public library job). They are great - you can read in the dark and can carry thousands of books around with you. You can also change the font and text size to make them easier to read - unless, that is, you're reading a PDF file. PDFs take longer to load than standard ebook files and they are harder to read on small devices (the print was tiny on my eReader and while I could zoom in, this was imperfect, slow and inconsistent). All this is to say that reading this book as a PDF file on my eReader was a frustrating experience - not ideal for getting lost in a story. Reading The Keeper of Portals as a PDF on my eReader probably added at least a couple of weeks to my reading time. Anyway, enough of my whining.

On to the review.

The Review

This is a difficult book to summarise, but I'll give it a go while trying to avoid being a spoilery spoiler who spoils.

Overview

15-year-old Martin and his mother have just moved into a once-grand house, which is now teetering dangerously on the edge of a crumbling cliff. As he's settling in to his new home, Martin meets a bizarre figure who can make doors lead to any other doorways in the world. He introduces himself as The Keeper of Portals ('Portals' for short), one of a series of Keepers tasked with making sure the world works as it should. There is a door in Martin's bedroom that has been there for 400 years - the only door that Portals has never been able to open. Martin wakes one morning to find the door open and Portals missing. With Portals gone, doorways start misbehaving themselves and leading to places they shouldn't. So, naturally, Martin goes through the door in his room in order to find the missing Keeper (it would have been a very short book if he hadn't). The door, it turns out, leads to the same room 400 years in the past, where Martin meets Isabel, the past-house's maid. Portal hopping and time dilating adventures ensue, featuring friendship, betrayal, romance, cliffs, caves, a sports car in post-Tudor London, a rogue Keeper, blue feathers and an army of mind-controlled villagers.

There are two main science-fiction/fantasy elements that drive the plot of The Keeper of Portals: portals and time travel.

Portals

The portals were one of my favourite things in this book - it's such a great device! If you're familiar with the Portal computer games, you'll get the basic premise. In the games, you have a gun that creates two portal holes, and you can jump into one and out the other. It works very similarly in the book1 except that instead of a gun, The Keeper of Portals does it with doorways. You know that feeling when you're reading a book or watching a show and you think "I wish I could do that"? Let's just say I had portal envy.

Time Travel

I'm quite picky about time-travel narratives. My personal preference is for a "closed loop" story, rather than one where the past gets changed by time travellers (Prisoner of Azkaban as opposed to The Cursed Child, for example). I find them really satisfying when they are done well2The Keeper of Portals does a pretty good job with its time travel - it even has a Keeper whose job it is to prevent paradoxes. There were maybe a couple of moments where I felt the explanations for what was happening in the plot were a bit hand-wavy3, but on the whole I really enjoyed the time-travel elements of this book.

The Characters

The stories two main protagonists are Martin and Isabel, both about 15 years old. Isabel, a 17th Century maid, is a fantastic character (although I'm not sure how authentic her 17th Century lingo was) - I really liked how unflappable she was when confronted with both the magic of the Keepers (time travel, portals) and the magic of the 21st Century (laptops, women in trousers). Martin, a 21st Century school boy whose dad had recently died, is... OK. I didn't dislike him, I liked him well enough - but I didn't love him. And considering that we experience the story from his point of view, this is probably the book's biggest flaw for me. To be fair, he is written as a character that makes mistakes, gets pulled up and learns from them - you don't want your characters to be perfect, one-dimensional bores. But I guess that some people you just connect with, others you don't. I was much more interested in Isabel - her situation, world view, character development - and whenever the narrative left her behind, I became impatient to get back to her (I guess this could also be because we are seeing her from Martin's perspective, and he pretty much feels the same way).

The other characters don't really have enough page-time for us to get to know them in any depth, but the population of Keepers - from Minor Keepers like Buttons to Fundamental ones like Time - is a many, varied and colourful cast.

The End

I think I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect than I did while I was reading it. Part of this is to do with my issues with the formatting (see above), and part of it is my ambivalence towards Martin. But overall, this is a fun read which zips along after a bit of a slow start. It has some great ideas, some enjoyable set pieces and a satisfying end with some real poignancy.

Asides

  1. There is a scene near the end of the book which feels very computer gamey - lining up portals to get the necessary speed and angles to take out a bad guy
  2. One of my favourites is The Anubis Gates by Time Powers - plus its got a killer clown, a body-swapping werewolf, Lord Byron and a time machine that is a giant slingshot. You should read it
  3. It could just have been that I did not quite get the explanations, I suppose

What do you think?