The Shadow Gate
by Margaret Ball

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Baen: New York, 1991
346 pages

January 2013


The Shadow Gate is a neatly plotted fantasy, or fantasy-romance, novel by Margaret Ball. A simple division of fantasies by viewpoint & setting would suggest several basic types: a fantastic realm with its native viewpoint(s); real-world intrusion into a fantastic realm; or fantastic intrusion into the real world. The Shadow Gate represents a fourth, combination, type: real-world intrusion into a fantastic realm, deftly intermingled with fantastic intrusion into the real world. This combination is rarer and more difficult. It requires not just a balance of characterization, but a balance of tone. A complex challenge, well-met here.

First, a high-medieval faerie France:

Alianora, Countess of Poitiers, Duchess of Aquitaine, Regent of the Garronais and Queen of the Middle Realm, held court in her palace at Poitiers.

In the hushed blue evening the stains and crumbling cracks in the palace walls were barely evident; the flaws of age were softened, hidden in the hazy sweet-scented air, swirled away by mists and illusion until the casual observer saw only a vision of perfection rising above the encircling ring of the gardens: white walls and slender white columns, spiral stairways rising as sharply and sweetly as an aubade, high pointed roofs shimmering with the iridescence of seastone brought all the way from the sandy shores of the Garronais.

A garden of sweet herbs and flowering trees encircled the palace, and beyond that, a wall of silence and invisible forces warded it against the hubbub of the dense-packed medieval city. In the streets of Poitiers a carter swore at his oxen and lashed them until they lurched forward and all but overturned his stuck cart, a mason defying guild regulations by working past sunset swore even more vehemently when the carter's load of quarried stone tumbled agains the back of the cart with the danger of cracks and flaws, a wine-shop keeper shouted the virtues of his wares to calm the men's tempers and an impudent girl threatened to report them both to the burgesses of the city if they didn't give her a sip from their cups.

Paralleling this, a workaday (if rather spaced-out) contemporary Austin, Texas:

Lisa could have sworn she'd looked before crossing the street; but the car seemed to come out of nowhere, burning rubber as the wheels screeched around the corner. A horn blared in her ear and the driver of the convertible yelled something as she threw herself out of the way. ...

"What are you doing, Lisa? Don't you know there's a bounty on pedestrians in Texas?" Judith Templeton called from the front steps of the New Age Psychic Research Center. Dressed for work in faded jeans and a Hot Tuna T-shirt, with her long blonde hair tied back with a shoestring, she looked like a time traveler on the deep, shady porch of the old house. "I knew the neighborhood would go to hell when they sold the Pennyfeather place to a fraternity. ..."

As always, when the heavy front door with its leaded-glass panels swung shut behind her, Lisa felt relieved to be insulated from the blaring world outside. The New Age Psychic Research Center, formerly the Harry James Templeton House, was located less than a block from the last street of windowless black office buildings and empty bank towers that had taken over Austin's downtown; but in mental and spiritual space it was a hundred years away from that world. Thick walls and overhanging eaves and good solid doors, built to keep out the Texas heat and sunlight, now toned down the roar of downtown traffic to a nearly inaudible murmur. The original hanging lamps with their stained-glass shades cast a gentle, multicolored light over the entrance hallway; soothing sounds of wind chimes and ocean waves came from the Harmonic Counseling Center in what had once been a formal dining room, and incense from the Afro-Jamaican Spiritual Fantasy Bookstore in the old library gave the cool air a hint of rose and jasmine.

The introductory passages above begin to stage the symmetry and balance of the book. Each speaks of an enclave: protected but threatened. The inhabitants of each enclave — Queen Alianora's palace and the New Age Psychic Research Center — are, if not precisely outsiders, are to some degree out of step with their wider societies, and perceived as outmoded remnants.

The physical settings are as well realized as the elven and human characters. I particularly like the role of standing stones in the plot, megalithic components of the Shadow Gate between realms.

There is nothing formulaic in The Shadow Gate. Margaret Ball has stuffed it full of surprises and turnabouts, many pleasantly humorous and others startling or quite unsettling. The finely-crafted plot easily carries the naturally real — and unnaturally real — characters in and among their corners of the worlds, among streets and buildings, paths and forests that we might walk in ourselves. A notably likable novel; I've enjoyed it more on each reading.


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

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