I originally read this book on holiday in Malta at a book letting store that has since closed, so I cannot get their records to find the name of the book. The only other person I knew who read this book recently passed away. We both read it in Malta and loved it and it is one of the few memories with him I have. I would love to find this book again to not only have it but to have a piece of my friend.
The plot is that a student in high school, whose mother has been gone for years, finds out she went through a crack in the forest that leads to another dimension. The crack only opens every ten or so years I believe. The student befriends a young student teacher at his school who is only a couple of years older than him and also knew his mother. Together they train and prepare to go through the portal and eventually do. I believe they trained at the high school, maybe outside on the basketball court, in fencing specifically. This is a bit of a guess but, I think they knew somehow that the world through the portal still lived and fought that way. Or, it may have been just a way for the student teacher to get close to the boy since she knew his mother and that she went through the portal. The portal, I want to say, was inside or through a fallen tree on the forest floor. I somewhat remember them climbing down to it or through it. I also remember that when they came through the portal it opened up onto a large grassy hill and they stood in wonder at the world before continuing on.
When they get to the new world they are immediately captured and enslaved by an artisan society and given tasks that separate them. I believe she gathered clay and he refined it. I also think they had ankle bracelets that kept them enslaved. They plot to escape but it is foiled by the artisan society leaving to a new place that requires a massive journey. On that journey in a very dangerous area, following a big storm, they are intercepted by knights and taken in. The knights take a liking to the boy and the student-teacher and train them to fight allowing for their eventual release.
When the knights train with the MC it is with a sword. I vaguely remember there being a scene where a typically cocky, against the MC joining them, character spars with the MC and the MC wins which catches the eye of the leaders who then train him further with the sword.
From there I get blurry on the details, but I recall that at the end of the book, there is a battle on some kind of airship that wins the war, where the boy and the student-teacher confess their love. I feel as though the war was between humans only and that a large part of it took place in the air on airships. I can picture in my mind the MC going down through different levels of an airship (zeppelin like) (picture the double pontooned airship from the film adaptation of The Polar Express that carries Santa's bag of presents to the sleigh) and that along the way he runs into the student-teacher, with whom he has fallen in love, and they share their first kiss. She is also fighting on the airship. Immediately after the war, the boy is taken to face several monolithic gods that rule this world who brought him here, and they send him back to our world. The student-teacher is left behind, which breaks the boy's heart as they'd fallen in love. He waits ten years and the last few lines insinuate that they're reunited at the portal.
I read the book in 2010 and I want to say it was published around the same time. I want to say the cover was a sunset with clouds and a flying ship but since it's been 12 years that is very likely wrong.
What makes this search especially tough, and why it has stretched over ten years for me, is that I remember the author said on the bio on the dust cover that he only wrote the one book to see if he could. I believe he was an engineer by trade. I don't think he ever wrote another and I don't know his name.
It might be the same book being looked for here.
Any help anyone can offer would be beyond appreciated. You would solve a decades-long mystery and reunite me with one tangible memory of my friend.