Whether or not you know the term “portal fantasy,” you know what it means. In portal fantasies, a doorway — either literal or virtual — opens up between the real world and some magical land A Fantastic Twist where strange beings live and strange things happen. The unassuming hero passes through this portal, only to have his or her view of reality turned upside down. It’s a trope as comfortingly familiar as Narnia or Wonderland (although portal fantasies have taken a darker turn in more recent works like Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians). And Matthew Kressel puts his own stamp on it in King of Shards.
King of Shards is Kressel’s debut novel, and it’s the first installment of a trilogy titled Worldmender. It’s a good thing he’s planning for three books in the series, because he’s bitten off an awful lot to chew. In King, Daniel Fisher is a young social worker in New York who’s about to get married — that is, until the sudden appearance of a white-haired, white-eyed old man leads to his mind-bending transportation to Gehinnom, a desert world that’s trapped in its equivalent of the Bronze Age, despite being eons older than our own civilization.
Gehinnom is a full-fledged fantasy realm full of weird creatures and magic, but as Daniel discovers, it’s not entirely alien to Earth. The old man who whisked him away, who has now taken the form of a dog, is named Adar — but it’s only one of many names he’s known by in Gehinnom. Daniel, who’s Jewish but not especially devout, begins to piece together the familiar terminology that he remembers hearing from his Hasidic grandmother: Gehinnom, better known to gentiles as Gehenna, is a hellish place where sins are purged and curses abound. Along with Rana Lila — a native of Gehinnom who wishes to become an architect regardless of the ban on women holding such a post — Daniel encounters numerous deities, demons, places, and concepts whose names echo down from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish mythology