When Jaleigh Johnson was five, she would watch her 15-year-old brother play Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. “I can remember sitting and listening to them weave these interactive fantasy stories about adventures, going on quests and fighting monsters and getting treasure,” she says. That experience sparked a life-long love of fantasy stories that inspired her to write.
“It felt like a superpower that these authors had this ability to transport their readers to these worlds,” Johnson says. “And I thought that’s what I want to do, that’s the superpower that I want.” Her latest novel, The Door to the Lost, transports readers to the world of Talhaven, where a mysterious catastrophe has demolished the gate to Vora, leaving the world without magic and stranding a boatload of Voran children. Among those children are Rook and Drift, magical orphans in a world that resents their abilities.
“I wanted to do a twist on a traditional portal fantasy,” she says. “Instead of Rook and her friends arriving in this new world as chosen ones or these powerful savior characters, they initially arrived as part of a great disaster.” They’re mistrusted as refugees rather than welcomed as heroes.
That mistrust makes life difficult for Rook and her friends, who have to make a living while on the run from the authorities. To get by, they use Rook’s power to create doors to transport people who need to move quickly or secretly. As amazing as her power sounds, Rook herself is ambivalent about it. She hasn’t been able to open a door to the one place she feels she really needs to go, which is back to Vora, and instead keeps accidentally opening doors to a snow-covered forest. “I love that idea of exploring doors as possibilities and risks,” Johnson says. “Every time you open a door you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”
Johnson points out that all of us can relate to the potential of Rook’s ability. “Throughout the course of our lives we open thousands, millions of doors,” she says, “and some don’t mean anything at all to us and others can be monumental; they can be life-changing.” But Rook is largely blind to the possibilities of her power, focused as she is on what it can’t do.
Rook’s best friend Drift, on the other hand, is focused on making the best of the iteration they’re in. That conflict between the girls, and the question of when strive for more and when to accept what you have, drives much of the novel, but underlying it is an unshakeable bond. “I like that idea of finding other people in the world who can truly understand you, your quirks, your eccentricities, your place in the world,” Johnson says. It’s an idea she relates to personally: though her own family was a happy one, she found her place among friends as an adult.
The theme of found families is one that runs throughout Johnson’s work, including her Solace series. The Door to the Lost also has a well-developed world and endearing characters, but there’s one big difference: This is definitely a stand-alone. “There are always people who will ask for a sequel no matter how much I wrap things up....but it was nice to know that this was where the characters’ journeys were going to end in my mind and that I was going to leave them in a satisfactory place.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.