Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Posted by DarkChaplain at 5/08/2016
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she's back. The things she's experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West's care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy's arrival marks a change at the Home. There's a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it's up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.

No matter the cost.
Starting in January 2016, I went on a bit of a novella-binge. I picked up a bunch of them, and found Every Heart a Doorwayin the process.

The Story:
"Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she's back. The things she's experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West's care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy's arrival marks a change at the Home. There's a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it's up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.

No matter the cost."

The Review
I picked up Every Heart a Doorway on a whim while looking through novellas that sounded interesting. Indeed, I like the premise this one is built around: Children stepping through portals into fantasy worlds that make them feel home, and how they try to come to terms with being back in reality after they leave or are dismissed.

It has a lot of potential, this lost children scenario, and I think the author didn't do a bad job making use of fantasy tropes like fairy lands, underworlds and dark moors with vampires and wicked scientists. Honestly, a lot of the stories we are told here were intriguing and fitting, and I enjoyed those a lot. It was great to see how the characters retreated into fantasy worlds that fit their needs, allowing them to explore their own identities and expectations that life never could.

But then there was also a murder mystery thrown in, which shook things up and, in my eyes, somewhat detracted from the various messages the novella could have given on the basis of that premise, of acceptance who you are, defying social norms while still not committing yourself to living a dream, and what not. There were multiple ways McGuire could have taken this story, and I'm not sure a murder mystery, as entertaining as I found it, was necessarily the best choice.

The problem for me lies with how obvious the killer's identity was from early on. It was easy to eliminate potential murderers based on their behavior and role in the story. The closer cast was simply too distinctly "good but odd" or "wicked but logical" to fit the job, while another character stood out as creepy for different reasons. It fit the story McGuire was telling, but as a mystery it was a little on the weak side.
The resolution of it all felt especially frustrating due to being kind of rushed, and wrapped up too neatly. The epilogue chapter detailed some happily ever after type events, which softened the impact for me. I needed a little more to really feel satisfied with the mystery plotline.

Another bugbear for me, which made me feel disconnected in places, was the gender politics angle. I like looking at social problems and questions of morality and all in fiction, but it felt blunt and preachy here in certain spots.

For example, early on in the book, the protagonist meets another student, who is a very pretty boy. After their encounter, her roommate questions her if she wants to sleep with him, and divulges that he is biologically female, and realized he wanted to be male back in his fantasy world. There followed a short "respect their pronouns!" paragraph, too, which I felt was clumsily delivered and didn't quite fit the story. As quirky and weird as the roommate character was (and I actually liked her a lot!), it felt too much like a direct throwaway line.

I liked the way the trans character's identity factored into his backstory and role, as well as his future outlooks, however. It fit and made sense. Though it was jarring to see how many characters had the hots for him based on how beautiful he was (well, no surprise there, considering his genes are still female and he was kidnapped by fairies for being a pretty little girl...). Superficial, that.
But teens will be teens, I guess. Crushes are easier to swallow than random comparisons of necrophilia to sex toys, or the protagonist's insistence in multiple parts of the story that she is asexual. There was too much focus on the latter, even though it fit her considering her backstory.

What bothered me the most though was a whole section about the differences between boys and girls, and how society expects women to be silent while they are startled when men are quiet.

I cannot possibly agree with that, especially not when throughout my whole life, men have been expected to be calm and composed while women can allow themselves to be frilly and loud. Even to this day I wish my mother would learn to be calm instead of dominating every family get-together with her voice and topics, ranting endlessly about the same things every time.
Even looking at social gatherings with friends and extended contacts, I cannot say that this expectation of the good quiet woman ever existed. Even if they were quiet at times, brooding or feeling bad, they were always encouraged to speak their minds and share what was bothering them, while the guys made it a habit of keeping quiet about what they really wanted to say.

So, for me, generalizations like that are nonsensical. Maybe living in Germany and hanging out with supposed fringe groups and befriending girls easier than guys gave me a different perspective and experiences than those common in the United States. Either way, that part of the book was a clear miss to me. It felt like blunt social commentary that didn't fit the story well, even though it was used to explain a thing about the school. There are better ways to dissect social inadequacies than that.

Oh, and one more thing: Can we please stop putting real life media and products into fantasy stories? Referencing Doctor Who, Narnia and Google might help settle the story in the present day, but it feels jarring and didn't match the escapism theme of the rest.

At the end of it all, though, I enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway more than I didn't. I would have liked certain characters to be explored more, but the format was strained enough as it is with all the things going on. There were plenty of clever ideas here, and the escapism inherent in it all struck a chord with me. The mystery wasn't bad, just predictable and a bit rushed. But I did enjoy it nonetheless.

Every Heart a Doorway on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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