Pluto and Persephone share their disdain for Orpheus and his hipster music.

L.E. Sterling‘s Pluto’s Gate could have been awesome. The premise is a retelling of Persephone’s abduction. In 21st century Montreal, Persephone is Percy Tate, the daughter of a wiccan mother who lives out in the country and Rex, an indie rock star who lives in the Plateau. She falls into Hades through the cleaning closet of a St-Laurent club after her ex-boyfriend’s groupies give her something that’s probably rohypnol. In hell, she discovers she’s in love with the god of death. Percy becomes Pluto’s princess after getting dumped by a boyfriend who pays less attention to her than her rockstar father.

The relationship between Percy and Pluto is one of the more successful elements in the story. Barring one Plateau stereotype, Pluto is Percy’s first partner, and she is hopeless for him, despite Pluto’s dodgy surprise wedding ceremony. As an entrant in the fantasy genre, though, Pluto’s Gate commits some very amateur sins. Sterling lets herself get carried away in her attempt to explain everything. Her characters undergo various transformations brought about by the underworld, and each one, it seems, is probed like a science experiment, but the answer is always a cop-out, as the book’s magical characters reply, “it’s something,” “it’s a mystery,” or even better, “it’s difficult to explain.” Sterling’s emphasis on the mechanics of magic strained my patience. When J.K. Rowling explains her magic, there usually is a satisfying answer that doesn’t diminish the reader’s sense of mystery. The characters don’t fumble around and leave readers confused. It doesn’t have to be complicated. When Virgil sends a living character into the underworld, the solution is easy: bring a golden bough.

About half of Sterling’s novel is spent explaining three characters’ supernatural transformations. Transformation is the crux of fiction, but in Pluto’s Gate they don’t lead anywhere. They are transformations for their own sake. In order to survive in the underworld without becoming a vampire, Percy’s best friend Simon must undergo a ritual to become a spirit warrior and shed his living body. He does this so he can stay in the underworld and marry the mermaid he was prophesied to marry. The problem is that once he’s endured the trial of letting go of his body, he doesn’t do anything important, and marrying the mermaid has absolutely nothing to do with Percy’s quest to save the world. The challenges of growing up and abandoning vampiric and unhealthy relationships for loving and committed ones are all there. Sterling takes her characters’ transformations into maturity and makes them shimmery and magical.

At the end of Rowling’s The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s mastery over a spell that makes the shadowy demons flee in terror is an expression of his overcoming childhood trauma. If you take the magic out, there’s still a story about a young boy dealing with his parents’ murder through the mentoring of a family friend. If you take the magic out of Pluto’s Gate, it’s about a girl falling in love with the man who tricks her into getting married and her spiritually-advanced friend with little narrative function.

I’m coming down hard on Sterling’s book because my expectations were relatively high. There are a lot of successful Canadian fantasy/sci-fi writers, like Phyllis Gotlieb and A.E. van Vogt, but I can’t remember ever reading a fantasy/sci-fi that took place in Canada or used a Canadian as an inspiration for its own fictional universe. At my age, that might be my own fault, but younger readers tend to read whatever is available and are more susceptible to commercial availability. I was looking for a book that would use Montreal the way Neverwhere uses London, or the way Anne Rice uses New Orleans.

The first part of Sterling’s novel, before the descent into the underworld and its clumsy magic, successfully uses the Plateau neighbourhood and its viciously hip crowd to illustrate Percy’s immaturity and isolation. Pluto’s Gate started off as a book I was looking forward to reading, but took a turn in another direction, down into an underworld that is difficult to care about, even as it faces extinction.

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