Clough, Brenda. 2000. Doors of Death and Life. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 09 October 2000

Doors of Death and Life (cover)

Brenda Clough's most recent novel completes the tale of Rob Lewis, Edwin Barbarossa, and the limits of unlimited power begun in How Like a God. Not many speculative fiction novels will admit that they descend from myth (except, perhaps, arch retellings of fairy tales that seldom work at novel length); Doors does so with a vengeance, as its predecessor depends upon a minor (but not inconsistent or inconceivable) variant of the Gilgamesh story. The aftermath that is almost thrown away in Doors is critical to understanding the book.

This diptych depends upon several levels of metaphoric separation of power. The most explicit of these is the separation specifically created between mind control (Lewis) and immortality (Barbarossa). Clough inserts a creative sharing and voluntary surrender of these powers that lifts the books out of the too easy, too common "superhero story." It seems obvious to confront a character of one-dimensional power with the converse of that power—test Lewis's mortality and Barbarossa's ability to influence or control others. How to do so without descending to melodrama is not. Clough's understated prose meshes well with the understated surface conflicts to stay within human dimensions—not easy when dealing with superhuman powers.

The test of Rob and Edwin's respective powers comes courtesy of an almost stereotypical megalomaniac. One might object that rich guys who want what money can't buy, and use their money to try to get it, are all too common in fiction. They're pretty common in real life, too; remember Ross Perot's candidacy? Doors points out, though, that the drive for immortality by a parasite is doomed to failure, because a parasite requires at least minimized hostility from the host. "Minimized hostility" doesn't seem to be in Rob Lewis's vocabulary, though.

The last, and perhaps most important, point Clough makes about power is that, no matter how expansive it may be, it has limits—even if only self-imposed. In How Like a God, we saw Rob struggle to find the limits on his power to control minds. He found a solution in ethics and responsibility. As Doors demonstrates, though, ethics and responsibility are inherently, in some sense, situational, because it is virtually impossible to make a choice between violating ethical rules and allowing undoubted evil through inaction.

All of this could underly an archly political roman à clef or a storyless allegory. That is not fiction, and both forms are inherently inferior to fiction for a simple reason: they are about the author, not about the characters. (Although Ms. Clough certainly is not, we authors tend to be crotchety bastards.) These books, though they have uncommonly thoughtful thematic aspects, remain focused on the human aspects and experiences of the characters—and therefore worth reading.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Contrary to the ignorant blurb in How Like a God, these books are not the elusive "North Americans writ[ing] magical realism." They are speculative fiction, and very fine fiction indeed. Together they are about 550 pages of fairly open type, which is shorter than most single entries in Interminable Fantasy Series. Shorter, less overtly busy, but there's a lot more going on.

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