The first thing I’d say about Diane Duane’s The Door Into Fire is that it’s sweet. The second thing I’d say is that it can be so sweet it can cause insulin shock. It’s an astonishing book when you think about it. It’s a fantasy with a bisexual male protagonist whose main love interest is male. It’s set in a world where polyamory is normal, where our hero is the first man for a thousand years to have enough flame to do magic and so the women do all the magic, where the goddess whose enemy is entropy will have personal sex with everyone once in their lives, and where cats can give you useful advice if you skritch them politely. And it was her first novel, and published in 1979. When I first read it I really liked it. (It must have been 1991 because that’s the British publication date, but I’d have sworn it was 1988. Maybe I read a U.S. edition?) I find it hard to re-read though, because of the aforementioned sweetness, so it’s a book about which I’m conflicted.
No plot spoilers at all.
On one level this is a very conventional YA story about a young man discovering his power and rescuing his sweetheart, who happens to be the true born but exiled king. It’s the first of a trilogy, but it has a reasonably good volume completion and can stand alone. It’s not YA though and probably couldn’t be published as such even now never mind in 1979—it’s absolutely chock full of very sweet non-graphic sex between everyone in sight. Two men, two women, a man and a woman, and a man and a fire elemental… Indeed, there’s a very unusual attitude towards sex in this world—that everyone will have sweet sex with everyone else and nobody will mind. Sex is referred to as “sharing.” And, oddly, everyone has a Responsibility, which means a man has to beget a child and a woman has to bear two, before they can get married. It’s like a hippy commune extended all over the fantasy world—but only as far as sex goes, there are still kings and queens and hereditary lords.
The worst thing about the book is the poetry, which is truly awful, the kind of thing that makes me think Tolkien made a bad mistake putting his own excellent poetry into The Lord of the Rings and setting a precedent. There are songs and rhymes of power and prophecy and they’re just horrible. Here’s a sample in case you don’t believe me:
Forlennh and Hergotha’s blade
are from the same metal made
and the Oath they sealed shall bind
both their dest’nies intertwined.
Till the end of countries when
Lion and eagle come again.
But there’s not that much of it and you can grit your teeth and get past it. Apart from that the style is odd, but it works. It’s in a tight third focused on our hero, Herewiss, but with omniscient overtones. It’s as if the Goddess, who is a character, is always peering over the narrator’s shoulder. This is an example, from just after that poem:
Herewiss suddenly recalled one of those long golden afternoons in Prydon castle. He had been stretched out on Freelorn’s bed, staring absently at the ceiling, and Freelorn sat by the window picking at the strings of his lute and trying to get control of his newly changed voice. He was singing the Oath poem with a kind of quiet exultation, looking forward to the time when he would be king and help to keep it true, and the soft promising melody wound upward through the warm air. Herewiss, relaxed and drifting easily toward sleep was deep in a daydream of his own—of a future day brightly lit by the blue sun of his own released Flame. Then suddenly he was startled awake again by a shudder of foreboding, a cold vision of this moment, lit by the fading sunset instead of mid-afternoon.
The characters are good, and the dilemmas are good, and there’s a lot about it that’s unusual and original and brave to do in 1979. Herewiss has a son and a father as well as his partners. There’s a really cool house which exists outside time with doors through into other times and places. The fire elemental, Sunspark, is my favourite character. The theology of the goddess and entropy is interesting and different—it’s a distinctly and unusually female angle on Graves’s White Goddess.
And yet—it’s been a long time since I last read it, and after reading it this time I didn’t want to go on to read the other two in the series. It’s just too sweet, too nice. too easy. There are no stakes. Nobody really dies, and if they do they come alive again straight after. Everyone’s reassuringly just confused, unless they’re actually part of the forces of Evil, who only exist to be destroyed. The big problem turns out to be a need to get over guilt for something that was really an accident. There are things that should be big important issues, but it all works out easily. You just have to open yourself and share—accept yourself, love the people you love and everything will be all right. And this is lovely and the narrative rewards it, but it sets my teeth on edge.
Duane has written better books since, and the best of her books are explicitly intended for younger readers. I still think this is an unusual innovative fantasy, and I can understand that there are people for whom it’s still a lovely book. I don’t even know if I’ve grown out of it or just got cynical. I want to like it—and there are things about it I still do like. Bits of it are charming and bits of it are funny and… no, overall it’s just too sweet for me.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.