Portamancy Unleashed: A Discussion of Grittiness and Magic

Back when I went to Boskone a while ago, I made several new friends. One of them is none other than the illustrious Myke Cole–new author and fellow JABberwock (and future roomie at WorldCon). He was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, Control Point. And I responded by not reading it until now, months later. (Sorry Myke–my To Read list can be quite lengthy at times.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Military fantasy action conspiracy goodness. (It’s definitely an adult book–for language and violence–but that sort of goes with the territory, ya know?)

I think the thing that stood out most to me about the novel was Portamancy–the magical ability to create portals to a different world. On the surface, this sounds fairly intriguing. Until you weaponize it, at which point it becomes fairly awesome. Control Point is very much a modern book. It takes place in the here and now, with the exception that magic is real. And while you could argue that many books take place in the here and now (like Harry Potter or Narnia, when it was written), there’s usually a wide range of realism and grittiness.

To use movie examples, Black Hawk Down and When Harry Met Sally both take place in the present day, but on opposite ends of the grittiness spectrum. (Wouldn’t a crossover mashup be awesome? When Black Hawk Met Sally?) Much of what writing a story is all about is deciding what elements to focus on. You could easily have a movie that starts out with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan falling in love, and then ends with them having a gun fight ala The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Guns exist in the world of Harry and Sally. But they’re conveniently missing for the purposes of the movie. Just like romance and giggles exist in the world of Black Hawk, but they have no place in the story.

The same thing holds true for magic. At any point in Harry Potter, Harry could have been the victim of a drive by. Or maybe Ron gets gunned down, and Harry turns to a life of violence to get revenge on the random Muggle who killed his best friend.

Have I rambled enough yet? I’ve got digressions within digressions.

This is all just to say that when Myke has portals in his book filled with guns and explosions, they aren’t portals to Care-a-Lot. His main character, Oscar Britton, discovers those portals act like razor blades when they open up. So you can slice someone in half with one. But he also learns how to use them to affect the physical world. Throw someone through one that leads to a spot 30,000 feet up in the air, for example. Or, of you’re falling from that height, you could open one up that shoots you up into the air in the opposite direction, so now you’re flying upward instead of falling. Then, just when you start to fall again, open one up beneath you and miss the whole splatting at the bottom thing. (Myke, you could actually use Portamancy to fly pretty effectively, could you not? That would be awesome.)

I don’t know. I guess I just got a kick out of how Myke used what’s often the mechanic to bring people into a world of wonder, and then turned that into a way to kill people. Maybe that says something about me. I’m trying not to overthink it.

(And as a final aside, one other thing I’ve been noting (hard to miss it these days) is how often books and movies are taking one trope and then throwing it into another to see what the result is. Everything from Shaun of the Dead to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Some do it well. Some, not so much. But I’m usually up for something new and different. I like the ones that do fresh things with it. The ones that don’t try hard enough . . . not so much. Please also note that Control Point really doesn’t fall into either category. This is just a thought that occurred to me while I was writing this post.)

In any case, if you like military action fantasy with a hard edge, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t check out Myke’s book. (Maybe I should have just tweeted this post and saved us all a lot of trouble.)

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