Ian Mond Reviews Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss

Outside the Gates, Molly Gloss (Atheneum 0-689-31275-X, $11.95, 120pp, hc) September 1986. (Saga Press 978-1-534-41498-3, $24.99, 128pp, hc) January 2019.

As far as I can tell (from a quick skim of the Internet Science Fiction Database), Molly Gloss’s debut, Outside the Gates, was never reviewed by Locus when it came out in 1986. This might be because the novella, initially published by Atheneum, was pitched at a younger audience and may not have pinged Locus‘s radar. (I could be horribly wrong.) Whatever the case, Saga Press has done us a favour by republishing Molly Gloss’s three genre books – which also include The Dazzle of the Day and Wild Life – providing us all with the opportunity to revisit her work, or in my case experience it for the first time.

Outside the Gates begins with a young boy named Vren evicted from his city for the crime of having a magical talent (in Vren’s case, it’s the ability to communicate with animals). When he encounters a man with a “bony angry-looking face, eyes hid­den below fierce brows, and wild red hair sticking out from beneath a pointed hat,” Vren believes the rumours that giants and monsters live in the great forest, the UnderReach, are true. But the foreboding man, who goes by the name Rusche, is kind and gentle and, like Vren, is one of the Shadowed, those born with magic in their bones. For a while, Rusche and Vren live a tranquil life deep in the forest, that is until Rusche fails to return home from a hunting expedition. Fearful he has been abandoned for a second time, Vren, with the assistance of a friendly wolf, goes out to search for his friend.

The gentle simplicity of Outside the Gates, free of the grimdark tendencies of contemporary fantasy, makes it a delight to read. That’s not to say it’s all roses and rainbows: like the best of Susan Cooper or Alan Garner, the stakes are high – Vren has to save his friend, and other Shadowed from a sinister force – and the villain is suitably evil, especially how he manipulates the Shadowed to use their powers for his own advancement. While the novella weighs in at fewer than 30,000 words, Gloss still finds the space to tackle big issues like xenophobia and the powerful taking advantage of the marginalised, themes that despite the changing times still, sadly, resonate. The ending – which I wouldn’t dare spoil – refreshingly involves no bloodshed, no violence, but in the most gorgeous, melancholy language affirms the positive themes of the story – love and friendship.

Thank you again to Saga Press for reintroducing this gem of a novella to a new generation of readers, and even bitter, old ones like me.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the September 2019 issue of Locus.

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