Book Review: Jacob, King of Portalia, Casey Clubb (2014)

November 5th, 2014 12:35 pm by Kelly Garbato

You had me at “LGBT Fantasy”!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy for review from the publisher.)

Eleven-year-old Jacob Prios is a dreamer. He kind of has to be, when real life holds so much potential for unhappiness.

Jacob wants to be an accomplished and famous “intergalactic musician” – even though he’s completely lacking in talent, no matter how much time he devotes to practicing the violin – just like his father Prantos, who died under mysterious circumstances when Jacob was only four years old. Now his mother is remarried and hardly ever speaks of her late husband. One of the few reminders Jacob has of his father is the clubhouse they built together – and on the eve of his twelfth birthday, Jacob overhears Rick and Laney conspiring to board it up after the weekend celebrations. As if this isn’t bad enough, Jacob’s journal – the one in which he scribbled another boy’s name, surrounded in hearts – has gone missing from his violin case. Jacob is convinced that he’ll soon be outed by Jimmy and his “goons,” the reigning bullies at Archer Middle School, and disowned by his stepdad Rick and best/only friend, Sammy.

And then something remarkable happens. Jacob picks up his violin and begins to play a song for Sammy – “one I’d heard long ago, in a dream of my father” – and unwittingly opens up a portal to another world.

Portalia (which, despite my best and repeated efforts, I will forever misread as “Portlandia”) is a parallel universe, one that exists on top of our own world. Portalia is home to multiple such portals, making it a convenient hub for space travelers. Yet, centuries ago, many of these portals were closed permanently, in order to prevent a species of blood- and power-thirsty werewolves from spreading war and genocide throughout the ‘verse. In the interim, a variety of aliens chose to make Portalia their home: fire-breathing dragons; magical unicorns; giant, horse-sized eagles; talking ferret-like creatures called Koopfs; and, of course, humans – including Jacob’s ancestors on his father’s side.

Prantos was King of Portalia, charged with guarding its remaining portals and ensuring peace: on both Portalia and Earth, as well as across the galaxy. Prantos frequently traveled back and forth between Earth and Portalia, eventually falling in love with an earth girl and starting a family. In his absence, Prantos left the throne in the care of his younger brother, Grolfshin, who assumed control when Prantos disappeared. Portalia has suffered greatly under his rule – thanks in no small part to his nefarious “counsel,” the Duke of Vorkalis.

Now that Jacob has returned, he must claim his rightful place as King of Portalia, defeat the werewolves for good, and fulfill the unicorns’ prophecy. Oh, and declare his love for Portalkeeper Milokah, the boy who makes his heart do somersaults and allows him to create the kind of music that can literally change the world. (“Milokah was my key. The one to tune my heart.”) No biggie.

Jacob – the little mouse who’s slowly but surely growing into those big ears of his – is the best kind of hero: reluctant to the point of terrified, flawed but with a pure heart. His battle with the Duke of Vorkalis parallels his coming out story, and by book’s end you’ll be rooting for him to triumph on both fronts. Many of the supporting characters are engaging as well: Sammy (give him a chance!), Michael, Bringelkoopf, Milokah (don’t worry, this isn’t a case of insta-love, even though it might look like it at first blush), Ma Korsen – even the mostly mute Fredriko.

While some of the elements (such as the repetition of the “growing into one’s ears/soul” theme) did at times feel a little young for me (at 36, I’m well out of the book’s middle grade target range), I still enjoyed the book immensely. (And I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel!) Jacob, King of Portalia is a story that adult champions of diversity in middle grade and YA books will be happy to share, read, and discuss with their children, students, patrons, and customers. It’s not just for kids, and I’m not ashamed to say that it had me tearing up more than once.

Speaking of diversity, I would have liked to have seen more female characters; there are only four named women that I can recall, and at least two are defined primarily by their relationships to the male characters: Beverley (Grolfshin’s girlfriend) and Laney (Jacob’s mother). In particular, I hope to see Telly’s role expanded in upcoming books, for obvious reasons.

Skin color is discussed in gradations; for example, of Milokah, Jacob notes: “His skin was darker than mine, but not as dark as my father’s.” While the descriptions are vague and open to interpretation, I think many of the characters (e.g., Prantos, Grolfshin, Milokah, Telly) could be pictured as people of color. There’s some potential for diversity on this front as well.

In a word, Jacob, King of Portalia is charming. Portalia is a wonderfully fantastical place, populated by all sorts of magical creatures (not the least of which is Jacob and Milokah’s love) – and we haven’t even seen the whole planet yet! Jacob, King of Portalia drops several hints that that future books in the series (trilogy?) might just feature dragons and unicorns more prominently in Jacob’s adventure (yay!). Casey Clubb has laid a solid foundation for what promises to be a series filled with adventure, romance, and subversive politics. (In particular, I’m remembering the characters’ disbelief that gay marriage is legal in Portalia, while only “legitimate” children may ascend to the throne.)

4.5 stars, somewhat reluctantly rounded down to 4 on Amazon and Goodreads.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The titular Jacob is just coming out as gay. The story has him falling in love with Milokah, a boy from another world. Skin color is discussed in gradations; it’s possible that many of the people of Portalia could be described as POC. See the review for more.

 

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