Nebula Shorts: Alix E Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (Apex)

The penultimate story on the list is from Apex magazine and it is at a very different pace than the other I’ve reviewed so far. We are presented with the thoughts of a librarian over several days. Busy doing the work of a librarian and following the interests of a librarian, the connection with science-ficiton/fantasy appears (initially) to be purely in the books discussed. The plot appears (initially) to be more about how the librarian takes an interest in the people who visit their library. Specifically one kid with a red backpack:

You’d think it would make us happy when a kid checks out the same book a zillion times in a row, but actually it just keeps us up at night.
The Runaway Prince is one of those low-budget young adult fantasies from the mid-nineties, before J.K. Rowling arrived to tell everyone that magic was cool, printed on brittle yellow paper. It ’s about a lonely boy who runs away and discovers a Magical Portal into another world where he has Medieval Adventures, but honestly there are so many typos most people give up before he even finds the portal.
Not this kid, though. He pulled it off the shelf and sat cross-legged in the juvenile fiction section with his grimy red backpack clutched to his chest. He didn’t move for hours. Other patrons were forced to double-back in the aisle, shooting suspicious, you-don’t-belong-here looks behind them as if wondering what a skinny black teenager was really up to while pretending to read a fantasy book. He ignored them.
The books above him rustled and quivered; that kind of attention flatters them.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow on Feb 6, 2018, in Short Fiction

The librarian’s concern for the red backpack kid, who appears to be neglected (or worse) and lonely. All they can do is try and point the kid at books which might bring them comfort.

Or is that all they can do? The line about those book enjoying the attention looks like a literary flourish — a dash of anthropomorphism to finish a sequence of paragraphs. Yet, such flourishes continue and the books in the library take on a bit more of a sentient hue. And what kind of books are in this county library?

“In the Maysville branch of the Ulysses County Library system, we have a locked roll-top desk in the Special Collections room with a sign on it that says, “This is an Antique! Please Ask for Assistance.”
We only have a dozen or so Books, anyhow, and god knows where they came from or how they ended up here. A Witch’s Guide to Seeking Righteous Vengeance, with its slender steel pages and arsenic ink. A Witch’s Guide to Falling in Love for the First Time, for Readers at Every Stage of Life!, which smells like starlight and the summer you were seventeen. A Witch’s Guide to Uncanny Baking contains over thirty full-color photographs to ensorcell your friends and afflict your adversaries. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies has no words in it at all, but only pages and pages of maps: hand-drawn Middle Earth knock-offs with unpronounceable names; medieval tapestry-maps showing tiny ships sailing off the edge of the world; topographical maps of Machu Picchu; 1970s Rand McNally street maps of Istanbul.”

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow on Feb 6, 2018, in Short Fiction

And wait…what the hell are librarians anyway? Who are these people with their network of secrets and tiny temples to their devoted profession. How do they shape their lives of the penitents who wander the cloisters of the municipal library? What kind of sisterhood (as the story calls it) are they all part of? What powers do they have? What vows have they taken? Why exactly are librarians both a bit scary and comforting? What do they know that we don’t…aside from, well, everything.

This really is a slow burn of a story. Full of details that maybe don’t matter and little touches that really do. Purposefully paced, nothing is revealed directly and even what is, could be taken as a brief flight of fancy by the narrator. What is pieced together is a world in which libraries contain magical books and librarians are an ancient order of witches tasked with the care of books, which themselves (even those mass-market paperbacks) are magical entities. But I guess we all kind of suspected that for a long time.

Take your time with this. I read it in two sittings, pausing halfway through. It isn’t long but it makes use of detail and side-steps to paint a picture. Very nicely executed, it hints at a bigger world and is a stronger fantasy that it appears. Rather like the world it hints at, this is a story about the arcane and about the library as a refuge from the mundane world.

Of course, valorising libraries and books is going to go down well with habitual readers. Trying the same trick with, say, Parking Inspectors might have been more of a challenge (although…when you think about it, there is something not entirely of our world about them…in many places they are even called ‘rangers’ and who better to spot incursions from other places and to patrol the supernatural borders of our realm…) Where urban fantasy tends to take us behind the mask of normality, this story just offers glimpses of a more magical reality hidden behind ours.

Nicely done. Even if the story isn’t your cup of tea, it’s hard not to appreciate the craft put into it.


17 thoughts on “Nebula Shorts: Alix E Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (Apex)

  1. I read this one way back when a link to it showed up on my twitter feed, and promptly recommended it to everyone I knew.

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  2. This story is exceedingly clever – a classic Nebula selection IMO – and I recall being impressed by it when I read it. I think what kept me from loving it is that the perspective of the librarian distances you from the more emotive story of the kid.

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    1. In this story, I actually feel like that’s entirely deliberate.

      I read this story as *about* being a bystander — which, well, is a position we’re kind of all in, most of the time. It’s about that sense of helplessness, of *knowing* how bad things are, how broken the system is — but not being able to help.
      And/or, feeling that the tiny help one can offer, is woefully insufficient.

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      1. … and also, about knowing that on rare occasions, you may actually be able to help, but that it will cost you dearly, perhaps even cruelly, to do so — and having to make the choice about how much you’re willing to sacrifice for yourself in order to help someone else, and whether you’ll be able to live with yourself if you don’t.

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      2. I agree, that was definitely what the author intended – and succeeded at.
        What stopped this story jumping from good to great for me was that I found myself wanting to get into the kid’s head, and as a result I felt a bit distanced from the story. That’s definitely just a personal reaction though, and not what the author was going for.
        With so many good stories out there it’s interesting what does and doesn’t tip a particular story into “great” for someone, and the Nebula list is a good example, with several that everyone chatting about them seem to agree are at least very good, but different opinions on which are the absolute best.

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  3. This story is damn near perfect. As you say. lots of little details which hint at large aspects of worldbuilding behind the scenes. This is definitely going on my Hugo ballot.

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  4. Camestros Felaptong: Parking Inspectors might have been more of a challenge (although…when you think about it, there is something not entirely of our world about them…in many places they are even called ‘rangers’ and who better to spot incursions from other places and to patrol the supernatural borders of our realm…)

    I think you should write this story. It sounds awesome. 😀

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