In the killer hook opening to this portal fantasy, John, a gay graduate student, has a problem. He and his mysterious roommate Kyle ran into each other in a bathhouse, and fled in opposite directions. Several weeks later, Kyle still hasn't returned, and the rent is coming up. And while Kyle is extremely strange - he's covered with weird tattoos, carries around swords and knives, always keeps his room locked, and, bizarrely, claims to be a milkman - he has never failed to pay the rent on time, which makes up for all other flaws as far as John is concerned.

While John is trying to figure out what to do, a letter arrives addressed to Kyle - the first Kyle has ever received - with no return address. In a mixture of desperation and pent-up curiosity, John opens it. It contains an ornate gold key, and a sheet of paper reading, "DON'T."

Cut to Kahlil (aka Kyle), who is on a mysterious errand in his own world, carrying a bag containing a talking skeleton and gloomily musing that once he gets back to our world, he will probably get the order to kill John at any moment. When he returns to our world (just in time to pay the rent), we see it through his eyes. Everything is shockingly vibrant, intense, and beautiful... compared to where he's from.

This is one of the most engrossing and fun otherworld fantasies I've read in a while. The worldbuilding is fascinating. Kahlil's world is suffused with a sense of wrongness, but not in the grimdark way where everyone is a rapist sociopath and nobody ever has any fun. It's meticulously detailed - there's a funny scene where John sits in a bath and tries to figure out what the hell the cleaning implements and ointments are for, then finds out when the servants arrive and start cramming tooth powder into his mouth - but faded. The food has little savor, the colors are dimmed, and even the air is thin. Some catastrophe seems to have cast a magical pall over the entire landscape.

While there are horror elements (like the talking skeleton and some very creepy magic), the tone is more like old-school swords and sorcery given a modern gloss than actual horror. It's dark in parts, but playful in others. There's banter and egg-laying weasels. The plot is complex and intriguing. I assume John and Kahlil will eventually have a romance, and that they will be instrumental in restoring life to the world. But in terms of how that will happen, I have no idea. The broad outlines may be clear, but the way in which things have happened has been consistently surprising.

There are some flaws, which have not spoiled my enjoyment. Some of the supporting characters get a lot of page time but very little character development. There are a few points where characters fail to take what seems like the obvious, sensible action, for no particular reason other than that the plot needed them not to. And while parts of the story have a very real feel to them, other parts are paper-thin. In particular, John seems to have sprung out of thin air, with no school responsibilities, no family, no history, and no associates other than the ones who are central to the plot.

Still, like I said: really fun. Without getting too spoilery, I will mention that John's introduction to the world is sufficiently rocky that I initially thought, "Oh, God, this is going to be that cliched crapsack world where every single character is a total asshole and everyone is constantly getting slaughtered for no reason." That turns out to not be the case. Or, at least, so far it hasn't been.

This is an extremely long novel broken into ten parts of about 100 pages each. If you have already read this, please note that I am only on Part 2. Please do not spoil me for anything past that!

The Shattered Gates (The Rifter)

Servants of the Crossed Arrows (The Rifter)
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