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Review: March’s End by Daniel Polansky

Nathan’s review of March’s End by Daniel Polansky, a dark portal fantasy that is an immensely nuanced and satisfying character study.

Plot Summary

March’s End is a multi-generational portal fantasy of strange magics, epic warfare, and deadly intrigue, in which the personality conflicts and toxic struggles of the Harrow family are reflected in the fantasy world they’ve sworn to protect.

The Harrows are a typical suburban family who, since time immemorial, have borne a sacred and terrible charge. In the daylight they are teachers, doctors, bartenders and vagrants, but at night they are the rulers and protectors of the March, a fantastical secondary world populated with animate antiquated toys and sentient lichen, a panorama of the impossible where cities are carried on the backs of giant snails, and thunderstorms can be subdued with song.

But beneath this dreamlike exterior lie dark secrets, and for generation after generation the Harrows have defended the March from the perils that wait outside its borders – when they are not consumed in their own bitter internecine quarrels.

In the modern day the Harrow clan are composed of Sophia, the High Queen of the March, a brilliant, calculating matriarch, and her three children – noble Constance, visionary, rebellious Mary Ann, and clever, amoral Will. Moving back and forth between their youth, adolescence, and adulthood, we watch as this family fractures, then reconciles in the face of a conflict endangering not only the existence of the March, but of the ‘real world’ itself.

THE MARCH’S END is a book about growing up, in which the familial struggles of the Harrows are threaded through the mythic history of the fantastical land they protect. It is a story of failure and redemption, in which the power of love is tested against forces that seek to break it, and the necessity of each generation to recreate itself is asserted.

Review of March’s End

I am admittedly a bit late in writing this review, and this might be one of my longest gaps between reading a book and writing the review. In this case, however, I think that the time to reflect on March’s End has really shown me how strong of a book this one really is and how prescient and powerful its messages resonated with me.

To put it simply, March’s End is another entry in the growing subgenre of adult portal fantasies that explore the darker side of children’s fantasy books. It joins Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s And Put Away Childish Things in critiquing some of the naiveté of children’s portal fantasies by pulling back the curtain on the reality of falling down the rabbit hole or walking through a wardrobe. What results is probably the darkest and bleakest of any of the books that mentioned, which might turn off some readers. However, if you are one to really dig into complex character arcs that explore the outcomes of childhood trauma, March’s End is a book to keep your eye on.

Polansky explores the trauma that the children in portal fantasies face through these fantastical experiences and the expectations placed upon them. Portal fantasies (think Narnia or the original Oz books) tend to valorize the hero’s journey; young children embark on unexpected adventures in magical worlds, often becoming the leaders and decision makers of peoples, lands, and events that they previously could only have dreamed of. These children of celebrated for their intelligence, bravery, and might….all despite that fact that they are everyday children that are forced to confront unimaginably violent scenarios.

When we are first introduced to our main characters, they are adults dealing with the aftermath of their fantasy-world adventuring. They are the three Harrow siblings, whose family is the “protector” of the magical realm of March, and they have had radically different experiences as they have grown up both in March and the “real” world. Constance is the eldest and the heir apparent to leading March; a queer woman, she has an estranged wife and two children. Mary Ann, who was an insecure child, has no stable family life and no genuine accomplishments; she is a drifter. John, the youngest, is probably the most damaged from his youth, and may be way beyond the point of repair.

Polansky introduces us to the Harrow family using a dual timeline approach, jumping back and forth between their childhood adventures and their adult lives. In doing so, Polansky beautifully contrasts the childhood innocence of discovery with the jaded, broken, and defeating nature of adulthood. Jumping back and forth allows us to see how the Harrow children grew up to be the adults that they became, and how the world has shattered them. Defeating evil and becoming full-fledged members of a ruling family is no easy task, especially for young children going through the more “normal” trials of young adulthood. What ultimately emerges is a fascinating character study that examines the consequences of fantasy adventures without shying away from all of the darker elements.

March’s End is a “character book” through and through. Readers looking for a new portal fantasy world to explore may be a bit disappointed in what March’s End has to offer. The world of March has a dark and magical aura surrounding it, but it simultaneously feels a bit shallow and confusing. Polansky doesn’t spend too much time giving vivid descriptions of his various fantastical creatures, or delving too far into the politics of March, because the purpose of this book is to look at the longstanding consequences of childhood trauma. It is the three Harrow siblings and their journeys which are the true stars of this book, and the book is all the stronger for it.

When I normally read portal fantasy books like this, or really engage with any kind of fiction that has both a “real world” and a “fantasy world”, I am usually bored to tears by the “real world” stuff and just want to get to the magic. I had the complete opposite experience with March’s End. While Polansky does some really interesting things with magic and fantasy here, I could not wait to return to the Harrow children in their adult domestic lives. This is where March’s End really shines as we look to how hard Constance tries to be the “perfect” wife/mother while preparing to be the perfect queen of March, while her other siblings rebel against their situations both past and present. We don’t often get to see these issues really dissected in portal fantasies, making this a true standout.

If you are looking for a book that acts as a commentary on common tropes in children’s fantasy, but that isn’t quite as whiny as The Magicians, check out March’s End. It is a fantastic character examination wrapped up in a succinct standalone package that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.

Concluding Thoughts: Dark, adult reexaminations of childhood portal fantasies are becoming increasingly common, and March’s End is a worthy new addition. An examination of the long term familial trauma that portal fantasy adventures inflict on young bodies, Polansky introduces us to a trio of siblings with immense character depth and nuance that you cannot help but feel drawn to. The characters definitely outshine the fantasy, but this made for a much richer reading experience. It’s dark and at times a brutal read, but the journey is worth it.  

Thank you for checking out my review of March’s End!

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