Gateway (Book Review)

My last few posts have been about movies, Disney and Pixar movies in particular, so I’m excited to talk about books today. I just finished reading Gateway by Sharon Shinn, and as soon as I finished it I knew I had to write a review.

Gateway tells the story of Daiyu, a Chinese-American teenager living in St. Louis, who suddenly finds herself transported to an alternate world. In this world, Jia, as Daiyu quickly learns, it is the Han, a people very similar to the Chinese, who explored the new world, and Shengleng–the city Daiyu knew as St. Louis–is the most important city in the world. Because her Chinese heritage lets her pass as Han, Daiyu is recruited to infiltrate the upper tiers of Han society in order to eliminate the  prime minister Chenglei. But as she proceeds in her mission, Daiyu has doubts. Is Chenglei really the evil man that her handlers, Ombri and Aurora claim? Can Ombri and Aurora be trusted at all? Complicating everything is Daiyu’s budding romance with Kalen, a poor stonepicker boy. If Daiyu does decide to go through with her mission, can she bear to leave Kalen behind?

I have a kind of uneven history with Sharon Shinn’s works, of which I haven’t read as many as I probably should. I loved the world she created for The Safe-Keeper’s Secret and its sequels, but General Winston’s Daughter frustrated me on so many levels, not the least of which was the heavy-handed anti-imperialism message and the tacit approval for, essentially, a terrorist attack. When I picked up Gateway from my local library, I wondered which work it would resemble more.

As it turns out, Gateway is completely its own book, with a unique voice and style. While Shinn’s richly detailed world-building  is definitely present, as is her penchant for exploring the interactions of different cultures, Gateway didn’t forcefully remind me of any of Shinn’s previous books. Like  General Winston’s Daughter, it  features a teenager girl entering another culture and becoming enthralled with it, but instead of trying to drive home a political message, Gateway simply seeks to be a romantic fantasy adventure.

Daiyu, the protagonist,  almost represents what any savvy reader would hope to be like if they got swept into another world. She’s open to the mysterious strangers, but she weighs her options before making decisions. She’s eager to see this new world she’s in, but she keeps an escape route handy. She uses people as she has to, but feels genuinely bad for any collateral damage, even just of the emotional variety, she leaves in her wake. She tries to avoid relationships that can only end painfully, but in the end her heart just can’t help itself. Most importantly, she remains skeptical of everyone. I found this both interesting and frustrating. Intellectually, I approved of her reluctance to trust Aurora and Ombri. Emotionally, I longed for her to invest in one side or another. When she finally makes her decision and commits herself, the story rockets with intensity, but it’s a little late in the story.

As a character, Daiyu is a little bland. She’s a bit too much a placeholder, constantly responding to the actions of others, instead of shaping her own path. However,  as placeholders go, at least she’s an inoffensive one. Her voice is crisp and modern, in pleasant contrast to the ornate fantasy culture around her, but never jarring with slang or pop culture references. She quickly picks up on what’s she’s told, minimizing info dumps. Although she falls for Kalen pretty quickly, she doesn’t spend pages drooling over him.  Despite her initial irritating indecisiveness, when she does decide to act she handily proves herself no damsel in distress.  Daiyu won’t be joining the pantheon of most-beloved characters any time soon, but being inside her head for the space of a novel is a painless, mostly pleasant experience.

The plot, which mainly revolves around Daiyu insinuating herself into high society and trying to decide whether Prime Minister Chenglei is really a bad guy or not, meanders a little at times. Readers who are looking for fast-paced action will probably tire of Daiyu’s detailed descriptions of the gorgeous outfits and intricate customs of the Han elite. Gateway chooses to focus on the world-building  over the adventure aspects, probably to the book’s benefit. It also places a lot of emphasis on the romantic subplot, which grows in importance until it’s a little hard to tell whether this is a fantasy adventure with romantic elements or a romance with fantasy and adventure elements. Daiyu’s relationship with Kalen, the poor cangbai (that ‘s Fantasy Chinese for “white”) stonepicker, moves at a whirlwind speed. It could have benefited from a slightly slower pace and more development, however the interactions between the two always feel natural and the progression of the relationship, while rapid, doesn’t come across as forced. Shinn keeps the romance as a thread entwining throughout the novel, never overwhelming the main plot, yet never wholly disconnected from it, either. There are some very sweet scenes between them that become very poignant by the end of the book. On my first reading, I “dinged” them some points for the cliched “I’d never met him before, but he seemed so familiar” routine, but the ending forced me to reevaluate as it brought some very teasing possibilities to my mind.

The real delight here, though, is the world that Shinn creates. Inspired by Chinese culture, yet not bound to it, Jia is a beautiful, exotic wonderland, yet with a palpable darkness to it as well. Shinn has an eye for “domestic” details, adding countless tiny customs, fashions, and other particulars that make her world feel real.  Whether we’re joining Daiyu for a formal tea with society’s elite, or wading for precious qiji stones in the river with Kalen and the poorest of the poor, every layer and  facet of the world resonates realistically. Because Shinn brings Jia to such vivid life, we are almost as enthralled with it as Daiyu is, which makes more powerful the poignancy of her inevitable departure.

Whatever gripes I had with the first three quarters of the novels, the last fourth is wonderful. The stakes ratchet up, Daiyu takes an active role, and the romance has fantastic emotional payoff. The very last chapter was both intensely enjoyable and frustrating. It made me completely re-evaluate the beginning of the book. I’m not sure if the possibilities it raises were intentional, but it would fit the rest of the book beautifully in a very poignant way. The conclusion is somewhat satisfying, but I rushed to the computer hoping to discover that this was the first book in a series. Sadly, I could find no evidence of this.

If  this was a first book in a series, I would give it 4 stars out of 5, but as a standalone novel, I can only give it 3 1/2. The premise is intriguing, and the world-building is excellent, but the characters and plot aren’t always quite up to par, and the ending leaves a little too much hanging.

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~ by Morgan Star on August 13, 2012.

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