Even though Sparkling Falls is located in a parallel time continuum, there’s still a sense of modernity, if not in automation, at least in language. Laura, the misplaced protagonist in J.S. Bailey’s “The Land Beyond the Portal”, is quickly at ease with the village’s habitants, speaking the same language and, at times, trading one-liners common in today’s youthful vocabulary. It’s the sort of banter that gives the story’s setting a realistic feel in spite of the shroud of eeriness the citizens reside under.
Since Laura is not the first lost person to travel through one of the portals found in the nearby woods, the citizens quickly accept her into the fold. Laura’s loss of memory helps her adapt, blending into this new culture. And dreams and recollections of who she may be eventually become secondary during her stay, as there are plenty of mysteries in her new world to keep her occupied.
A high infant mortality rate, lost children, and rumors of birthing quotas mar an otherwise small and peaceful enclave, presumably surrounded by endless forests. A deity named Litchfield, visible in Oz-ian form, has long since set the rules governing the citizens, and an annual celebration in his name is considered sacred. The story invokes images of Jonestown and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, as there’s this sense of a more than progressive society that has somehow been both hijacked and stymied by superstition and belief in a false god.
Sensing something sinister at hand, and mindful of her own Christian background, Laura is unable to abide by the required rituals and solemnity demanded by Litchfield and his cronies. The missing of one of her host family’s siblings spurs Laura into action, as she and two of her new friends venture into the ominous wilderness. Their discovery answers many questions while compelling them to consider organizing and rising against their benefactor.
The oft-introductions of so many characters may not be presented in a so-and-so-begat-so-and-so format, but their inclusion does tend to stall things early on, as a number of them are injected with little or no background of consequence. However, the discerning reader should be able to steam ahead while remaining focused on Laura and the building suspense surrounding the missing child, the story behind her new world, and the answers surrounding her identity, the conclusions of all of which will not disappoint.