Friday, March 22, 2024

Review: March's End by Daniel Polansky

Taking some of the basic the tropes of epic and portal fantasies and intensifying them via the lens of a family drama. 

You may think you have heard this story before. Young scions of a ruling family in a fantasy kingdom have to come to terms with being the next generation and having to fill their parents' and ancestors' shoes, especially as a power capable of undoing the world comes calling. Plenty of extruded fantasy product has this sort of dynamic, in epic fantasy novels, trilogies, and series that are not yet complete.  If you are a seasoned reader of epic fantasy, you know all the beats, the shape of this story.

Except, you haven't heard this particular story before. The Harrow family is well off in our world, our own Earth, but every evening, once they find themselves of age, they can find themselves in a secondary fantasy world of fantastic landscapes and even more fantastical anthropomorphic intelligent creatures. The Harrow family, rulers of this world, are, in fact, the only humans in the March. But when time has moved on and the younger March family members are faced with the possibility that the March's time has come, one way or another.

This is the story of Daniel Polansky's March's End.

A mix of urban and epic fantasy, mixing a secondary fantasy world with our own world, and having people with agency in both, is not sui generis to Polansky here. Eric Nylund's Pawn's Dream took a similar conceit, with the protagonist falling asleep in our world and waking up in a secondary fantasy world, and then back again when he fell asleep there, night after night, day after day. Violette Malan's Shadowlands novels have a Professor of History in a Canadian university who finds out he is really a Prince of Faerie, and Faerie definitely needs him back. The feel at the beginning of the series is urban fantasy, with magic intruding into our world, and ending with epic fantasy with the action mainly in faerie. Edward Lazellari works on a similar method, where a NYC police officer in Awakenings finds out he is a knight of a secondary world fantasy realm. By the third book in the series, Blood of Ten Kings, the story has gone completely from urban to secondary world epic fantasy. 

Polansky's method and style and ethos subverts and plays with all of this throughout the book. He starts it off with a couple of the Harrow children, as young children, discovering their family's secondary world secret for themselves for the first time. But he subverts what might be a straightforward coming of age by having time frames both set early on in the kids' lives, and then 20 some odd years later, in our present. Mary Ann, Will and Constance are very different than their young selves, and old conflicts between the three of them and their mother, Sophia, have driven strong wedges into the family. A lot of the present day narrative does not take place at all in the March and instead focuses on the family conflicts and drama between the three of them, as the seams of what is going wrong with the March, and has been going wrong for quite some time, come to light.  

Thus, Polansky relies on their younger selves to show the March and the rot and decay underneath the Harrows and their rule subtly and carefully even as he shows and then undercuts the secondary world fantasy narrative. And this then is the grist for the mill of the present day conflict that the Harrows primarily face in our world. The Harrows bicker, come into conflict, and finally must not only face themselves and each other, but face the problems they themselves have helped to create. The novel shows us the consequences of rule, and often gives us a stark exploration of what a secondary fantasy world is like, and not just for the ruling class, either. 

Thus, overall, the book does feel like a deconstruction of secondary world fantasies, in particular, as well as portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Polansky's deep focus is always on the characters, especially in the present, and it is their fates, nature, destinies and problems. Just why the March is falling apart, who is ultimately responsible and what can be done--sure, Polansky does give us some big action sequences, but in some ways, even the big set piece one we get, is a sideshow to his development and study of these characters. Just what would ruling a secondary world fantasy kingdom by night do to a family over generations, over time? What does having that secondary world do to a person or a group of people who can share that experience? How can you make connections and bonds to people who can't appreciate, quite literally, what you do in that other world?  This is also territory that Seanan McGuire has been exploring in her series of Wayward Children novellas.  

This is definitely, in the end, not a Fantasy 101 book by any means. This is a reconsideration, reformulation and distillation of several types of fantasy and looking to see how they actually work with characters out of mimetic fiction who have, by birth, not by choice, have the connections to a magical world as their legacy, birthright, and even curse. Polansky doesn't explain some key bits about how the Harrows' world of the March vis a vis our own actually works and doesn't work, and there are some beats in the story that happen and are remarked on, but again, are not explained and explicated.  I think that's part of Polansky's point, his design for this novel. He challenges readers to think about these subgenres but doesn't spoonfeed any answers, but rather poses the Problem of Secondary World Fantasy (capitalization intended) through the lens of the Harrows and their lives. 

Thus, I don't think this book is for everyone. For all of the fantastic that Polansky shows us in the March, and it is vivid and amazingly well shown when he focuses on that, this is not a novel about escapism. No, I am wrong in that. It is a novel entirely about escapism and the perils of escapism and not facing up to the consequences and problems of the escapism that is, at the bottom, what the March *is*.  It's a strongly written book, a book that often cuts very to the bone, especially for a fantasy reader. It's not a comfortable book (but that seems to be a Polansky speciality, in my reading of his work).  Reader beware, but also, reader discover.



  • A strong family dynamic central core
  • Interesting if uncomfortable discussions of genre and what it is for.
  • A challenging and rewarding read on an emotional and textual level.

Reference: Polansky, Daniel, March's End, [Angry Robot, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.