*WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
This is the first time I’ve ever accepted an offer for a free book from a new author – and the only reason I accepted Through the Door was because Jodi McIsaac offered to send me a physical ARC instead of an ebook. (I do not own an ereader, because I am eighty) Going into this review, I wondered if I should try to sugar-coat things, focus on the good aspects of the book rather than listing the bad ones, be nice. It seemed like a good course of action, especially because Jodi McIsaac reached out to me personally to read her book, and I feel some sort of obligation to be kind. But as I’ve said before, my reviewing philosophy is that, like Lester Bangs, you have to make your reputation on being honest, and unmerciful. Let’s begin.
Our heroine, Cedar McLeod, has a seven-year-old daughter, Eden. Cedar’s dirtbag baby daddy, Finn (we’ll get to him, don’t worry), left without warning one day before Cedar could tell him she was pregnant. Now Eden has developed an ability – when she opens a physical door, she can turn that door into a portal that opens anywhere she wants. Then, of course, Eden disappears, and Cedar is forced to attempt to track Finn down in order to get some answers about Eden. She meets Finn’s entire family and friend group, who are all Celtic gods, sort of. They’re ancient magical beings who were called gods, anyway, and their official name is the Tuatha De Danann, but I’m going to go ahead and refer to them as the Celtic Cullens for brevity’s sake. Anyway, Cedar teams up with the Celtic Cullens and her dirtbag baby daddy to find Eden, and we get a nice walking tour through Celtic mythology (mermaids! druids! thousand-league boots! motherfucking leprechauns!) while they look for the kid. Evil is confronted, bonds are forged, magic magic power of a mother’s love etc. Also we get to go to Fairyland, which is fun.
Look, it’s not terrible. The concept of using Celtic mythology is relatively new territory, at least for me, and it’s fairly well executed (except for the pointless scenes that just serve to introduce another aspect of said mythology, see: leprechauns). Also, I must give McIsaac credit for having a heroine who’s not seventeen years old and not struggling to choose between two hunky and interchangeable male leads. That being said, the book is very clearly a first novel, with clunky exposition dialogue and convoluted similes (my favorite, which unfortunately I forgot to mark so I can’t quote it exactly, describes a character’s thoughts bouncing around her head like children in a bouncy castle, I shit you not) and the Celtic Cullens spend way too long refusing to explain anything to Cedar in an attempt to draw out the tension, and they also have a very frustrating habit of muscling her out of the action, always telling her to go home or wait here or hide there so they can deal with this themselves. Even Cedar’s own mother is constantly dropping hints that she knows way more than she’s telling about the magical goings-on, and then she’s like, “I have to go right now, I’ll explain later!” and runs away. But these are all minor issues. On to the big issues.
The first issue: McIsaac can’t stick to her own rules. So each of the Celtic Cullens has a special ability, like one of them can communicate telepathically with people, and one has the power of persuasion. Simple, right? Nope. Okay, so one of them can persuade people to do whatever she wants. Except some of the Celtic Cullens are immune to her power. And sometimes her power doesn’t work. Finn has one power, but then halfway through the book he goes, “Oh, and I can also shapeshift, because I’m the firstborn, and we get two powers!” And the Big Bad, Lorcan, can absorb people’s powers after he kills them (man, wasn’t Heroes a good show?). Except sometimes he can’t. Because reasons. It’s like McIsaac kept writing herself into a corner with the rules she had created, so she just starts inventing loopholes to justify her characters sidestepping the established parameters of the story, and it was frustrating as hell.
The second issue, a much bigger one, is the god-awful gender politics of this book. As I mentioned before, Finn is a fucking dirtbag who makes the dads on Teen Mom look like stellar human beings. So he and Cedar are dating for like two years, and then one day he just packs up and leaves for no reason. We find out that he was only abandoning Cedar to protect her, of course – because the best way to make sure your significant other won’t come looking for you is to move away without explanation. His reasons for leaving weren’t even that good – it’s like, Jesus, you can’t leave a fucking note? We eventually find out that Finn was sort of engaged to one of the other Celtic Cullens at the time, and she was a jealous bitch who wanted to kill Cedar for stealing her man, so Finn abandoned Cedar to protect her. Because bitches be crazy, amirite? To her credit, when they’re first reunited Cedar immediately rips him a new one for getting all self-righteous and possessive of the daughter he just learned existed, but that all goes out the window later when she forgives him for everything and they have sex. (I’m not making this up: somebody puts a spell on Cedar that makes her forget Eden exists, and Cedar breaks the spell by making out with her deadbeat baby daddy, and there are so many things wrong with it I can’t even talk about it right now)
Cedar isn’t the only woman to get jerked around by the Celtic Cullens. We learn that another one of the human characters once had an affair with the High King of the Celtic Cullens when she was young, and by “affair” I mean he would show up a few times a year and they’d have sex. Then he shows up and is like, “Hey, you what would be fun? If you abandoned your friends and family and went to live in the middle of nowhere and learned to be a druid! Here, I picked out a teacher and an abandoned cabin for you already! Pack your stuff!” I was in no way joking that these guys are the Celtic Cullens. And then, after this woman has altered the entire course of her life to do what this guy wants, he shows up again and goes, “Hey, so I was actually married this entire time, and I have to go back to my wife because people are super mad at me. But it was real, yo.” And THEN he shows up years later and tells her that there was this huge battle in his homeland and his wife is dying and he’s in danger, so he needs her to raise his baby as her own, because fuck you. And this woman is never, ever mad at that raging asshole for what he’s done. There’s even a line about how “she knew that he owned her” and it made me have a small rage-stroke.
All the female characters’ actions are influenced or even controlled by the actions of the male characters. Cedar doesn’t do anything until one of the male characters acts first, and she’s often merely reacting to something Finn does, rather than having agency of her own. Even the female villain is just a subordinate of Lorcan, who we don’t meet until the very end of the book (where he has to compensate for his utter absence in the rest of the story by tenting his fingers and delivering Bond-villain-worthy monologues about how THE WORLD WILL BE MINE and it’s underwhelming). Cedar’s one proactive move comes at the final confrontation with the villain, when she heroically dies. That’s it. She sacrifices herself to save her daughter, which is cool and everything, but Finn’s the one who gets to decapitate the bad guy with a sword. (And no, Cedar’s not actually dead, because reasons.) It was disheartening to read a story with a female protagonist and a mostly female cast of characters, and watch every single one of them be overridden by the male characters, fawn over them constantly, and be generally treated like dirt.
One last thing, and then I’ll put this book out of its misery: Jodi McIsaac, you should probably ask your publishers to remove the bit before this book’s plot synopsis where it says the story has “the wondrous imagination of Neil Gaiman” because all that’s going to do is make your readers compare your writing to his, and that’s not the effect you want.
Verdict: two stars