Through the Door – Jodi McIsaac

Usually as I read I make notes, either on the Word doc I write my reviews on or on actual paper with an actual pen. But on going through my list of books read this year, trying to see just how far behind I was with reviews, I suddenly realized that not only had I not reviewed Through the Door (which, I’m afraid, is not a reach-out-and-grab-you sort of title), I hadn’t even added it my “read” list or to the body of the page with a space under it to remind myself to start a review. It’s not that I don’t remember the book; I do recall the plot and characters. It’s just that … well … I just looked at the few updates I posted on Goodreads while reading, and two of the five are about how I had to push myself to finish it. It was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway, so I felt obliged; I also feel rather badly about a low rating. (And I kind of hope Ms. McIsaac isn’t kin on my mother’s side…I’ll just feel worse.) But it can’t be helped. My last update was: “I realized last night that I didn’t read – actually open a book or the Kindle and read – all weekend, just listened to audiobooks. I never do that. And I realized I was unconsciously avoiding this book, close as I am to the end. I just need to finish it…” I just … found it very easy to put it out of my mind. I didn’t care for the characters, the plot was messy and convoluted and a bit hard to swallow, and I just couldn’t summon up much bother about how it would all work out. It only took me about a week to read it, but it felt like forever.

The sum-up: Cedar is an art student when she falls in love with a young man named Finn, a wonderful musician. On one day which starts out wonderful, she plans on breaking the news to him that she is pregnant, but before she finds the right time to spill it he seems to see someone or something in a crowd, reacts strongly, and before Cedar or the reader knows it he’s disappeared, apparently for good.

Fast forward about six years, and we find Cedar no longer the idealistic Artiste (with an “e” and a beret), but a nine-to-fiver using her talent for some soulless corporation while trying to raise her daughter, Eden, alone (with a great deal of help from her mother, and occasional assistance from her friend Jane, who doesn’t like children, which was a nice and unusual touch). On one day which does not start out particularly wonderful, Eden shocks both herself and her mother by opening the door to her bedroom – to find on the other side not the little-girl-pink room but Egypt. As the (really awful) Goodreads synopsis says, “Suddenly, Cedar realizes her daughter is anything but normal.” Not a particularly pleasant way to put it, but accurate in the main. Her first thought is to go try to track down Finn, which leads her to his parents living not far away – which is interesting, because Finn told her they were dead. They’re pretty active for dead folk who aren’t zombies, and they’re stunned by the news of Eden (since Finn never knew about her), and they begin to help her without really helping her, by which I mean they glom onto her, refuse to let go, take her to meet some very odd people in a very odd place, and overall decline to tell her anything. Any thing. At all. Including anything about Finn and where he is and why he left and where he’s been all Eden’s life long.

From there it gets hairier as it turns out Eden is a valuable piece in a chess game being played by the immortal fae of Ireland, who have been ejected from Tir na N’og, of whom Finn happens to be one (see? Eden = not “normal”), and Cedar’s mother hates them for some reason, except she doesn’t, and refuses to help Cedar if she’s going to hang out with Those People, except not really, and there’s a turncoat in their midst, and there’s a kidnapping and a little globe-hopping as everyone tries to get or keep their claws on Eden and either get into or prevent someone else from getting into Tir na N’og.

There are some nice ideas in Through the Door. The portals Eden – and only Eden – can open are a fun idea (though I object to their being called “sidhe” – from what I can find the word means “people of the (fairy) hills”, so how does this work?). The modernization of the fae, passing for human in the world, was generally pretty well handled; specifically I don’t think it was tremendously successful, but, again, nice idea. The overall plot is original and solid and has a lot of promise.

Execution, though, is what makes a book worth reading. And it just wasn’t there.

First I have to say that character names annoyed me thoroughly. The So-Irish names were one thing – considering most of the characters’ origin stories – but “Cedar” and “Eden” just made me a little queasy. And then in the middle of all of it was “Jane”. Ermph.

Secondly, characterization. Cedar annoyed me even more than simply her name did. I just could not like her. She was weak; she was strong; she was hysterical; she was determined; she was … annoying. And then she lost her memory and it was unintentionally funny. Everything she knows or thinks she knows is turned inside out, and her reaction to all of it is just … off. Her daughter was not, thanks be to Brighid, as annoying as I feared she would be; she was actually a pretty decent child character, and never lapsed into either twee adowableness or I’m-so-precocious-you-will-hope-I-die. The book would have been deleted from my Kindle very quickly had she done so. Cedar’s mother Maeve … what a bizarre enigma. I like that she had a whole back-story and that that was why she did all of what she did. I did not like that the back-story got dumped on me in one huge dense clod of flashback and “and then I did this and then he said that”. And I most of all did not like what she did do – it was absurd. It made no sense whatsoever, as a Woman With a Past or as a mother or as a grandmother. Cedar isn’t about to win any Mother-of-the-Year awards – unless she’s in the running against her own mum (or the fae woman whose name I can’t remember who when all’s said and done kind of caused a lot of the rest of the mess), in which case Cedar takes the prize by default.

The bad guy (gal) was kind of a hot mess. She was completely trusted by the others, not so much because she was a good actress but more that the others were completely oblivious; her talent (because all the fae have one) was kind of evil, but that’s okay, ’cause they trusted her; her personality reminded me of one of those movie villains in something like Home Alone, foiled by the darn-you-clever-kids. All histrionically bad attitude and not quite knowing what to do with the child.

Finn … I don’t even know what to say about Finn. To avoid spoilers I’ll keep it minimal, but … He was flat. There was so little to him, and for the most part he accomplished so little (with one major exception), that he’s the character I think I have the vaguest memory of. Cedar’s friend was more vivid. Another quote from the Dreadful Synopsis: “only the deepest love will survive”. Yeah, see, I don’t get that from this book. Cedar loves her daughter – that I get. Cedar and Finn? They haven’t seen each other in almost seven years. He shows up and gives her puppy-dog eyes. She flounces and rants and raves, and four minutes later is in bed with him – and other than being directly told how this is twoo wuv I just never saw it.

The secondary characters, the fae … I wanted to like them. (It always feels like the kiss of doom when I say that.) But they were …also flat. In one of the struggles over Eden, someone is killed, and the reaction is … minimal. No spoilers, but there is a tiny flare-up of grief, and then … nothing, not even from the person’s family. This death is tangential to the main story – but then a while later a major character is killed, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of impact from that, either.

Speaking of impact, something that I couldn’t keep out of the back of my mind as I read was the question of what was going on about Cedar’s job. As mentioned, it’s a standard office drone job, only artistic – but the Soulless Corporation she works for sounds like one or two of those I’ve worked for. They tolerated some of the early goings-on – barely; when she just up and takes off altogether, I don’t think her desk will be there waiting for if she decides to go back. Which she probably won’t. But still, she could have called in or heard she was fired or something. It matters to the plot not at all, but it was a practical detail that niggled at me for having been overlooked.

The plot… It kind of became a bit of a mess, to be honest. The fantasy elements don’t play well with the mundane – they seem a little ridiculous as they begin to take over Cedar’s very commonplace life. And then there’s the whole >BAM< aspect of the sheer number of revelations dropped on Cedar’s head, and incidentally on the reader’s. Characters refuse to reveal information to a point that it becomes not only cruel to Cedar but to the reader as well, or at least very frustrating, and this refusal also tends to result in large infodumps when all the information finally has to come out. New elements – often entirely unrelated to everything that has gone before – keep popping up out of the blue. Mermaids. New characters who are vital to the plot yet have never been mentioned before (related to the mysterious past of Cedar’s mother, which itself pops up unheralded more than halfway through the story). The bigger bad guy, who’s just terrible, yet is rather easily defeated. Brand new abilities for people, to the tune of “Wait, you could do THAT and didn’t mention it before?” Seven-league boots, for heaven’s sake, just to obviate the need for conventional travel; that felt a lot like deus ex machina.

Mainly, though, it was the writing that kept this from being very good. What’s the Mark Twain quote, about the difference between the right word and the almost right word? It’s like the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug? There were a lot of lightning bugs flitting about in this book. The one example I made note of: “She whirled her head around at the sound of approaching footsteps”. I – just – ow. It’s a really good example, actually, of the general style of the writing, as if throughout the author had a thesaurus open beside her and was conscientiously trying to avoid the obvious phrasings for any given sentence; that one couldn’t just be “Cedar heard footsteps approaching and looked around quickly” or something simple. Sometimes, though, the obvious is best. You just can’t transform a lightning bug into lightning by force.

While, again, this was not outright awful, it was all kind of a textbook example for mistakes to avoid in writing. Keep it simple. Don’t overuse the thesaurus. Avoid infodump. Show, don’t tell. It’s best to give some sort of foundation for new elements of the story which pop up partway through.

Also? Get a good synopsis written.

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