Every Heart a Doorway: An enchanting novella

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Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

It seems like there are many tales around today that strive to explain the ‘after’ in ‘happily ever after’, with varied results. Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway is one such story that had me riveted from the first. This novella appears to be the first in a plan for more stories in this world, and as an introduction it does an excellent job.

Every Heart a Doorway concerns the lives of those girls and boys (but mostly girls, as explained in the novella) who found passageways to other worlds and then came back again. These are your Alices and Dorothys, young people who found and were found by worlds that wanted them. Specifically, this novella concerns those children and teens who came back to our reality without necessarily wanting to. These young people are found and hopefully enrolled in a school whose headmistress was a lost child herself. The premise interested me from the start. As many ‘after’ stories as there are, I do like to see new or fresh or thoughtful takes on ‘old’ ideas. Every Heart a Doorway did not disappoint in any regard.

I love a good cast. The characters in Every Heart a Doorway were clearly individuals. Each child is dealing with the loss of their reality in different and nuanced ways. The headmistress of the school deals with the separation in a relatable mixture of grief and hope. Some students are angry; some resolutely hold that their worlds will call for them again soon. Each is accepting or rejecting their life in this reality uniquely. The depth of character afforded in such a short space bodes well for future (longer) tales in this world. Needless to say, I kept wanting to know and see more of the lost youths. They were wonderful in a quite literal sense: full of wonders.

My only confusion arose around questions of the intended audience of this piece. There are some passages that include liberal amounts of gore, as well as frank and direct conversations about sex and sexuality. At first these portions seemed a shocking juxtaposition to the almost idyllic state of the boarding school we are introduced to. Though, when I really thought about the novella, I came to two ideas.

First, that the juxtaposition was fairly effective. These are children and young people who spent months or years in worlds ruled by extreme whimsy, or the dead, or logic, or darkness. The shocking dichotomy of quaint boarding school and violence harken to what some of the children probably find normal or even comfortable.

Second, the conversations about both death and sexuality, I felt, treated teenagers like teenagers talk and act and are. It doesn’t shy away from gore or sex because these are conversations that the characters would actually have in those situations. There was embarrassment and squeamishness, but not to the exclusion of those characters or the silencing of those thoughts. In the end I thought the treatment of the lives of the older students was not so much shocking but interestingly real.

My one hesitation about this story was how the death and gore was dealt with. There are a couple vividly described murders in Every Heart a Doorway that everyone— rather quickly — seems fairly OK with. Even for children and adolescents who have spent their happiest times in other realities, it did strike me as not quite fitting how a vast majority of people seemed to be fine with dead classmates. There are a few voices of discomfort, but they seemed to be the minority. These instances stuck out to me as odd, but didn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the novella.

Something I enjoyed thoroughly about Every Heart a Doorway was the atmosphere. McGuire has crafted a world that is captivating, lush, interesting, endlessly deep, and unpredictable all at once. She has created a fascinating system of realities and people who visited them that I want to know more about. Within the school there is a framework of lessons and social interaction between the very different students that is also well constructed and interesting. The world building in Every Heart a Doorway is strong without being obtrusive, and interesting without being confusing.

Every Heart a Doorway presents a world and characters that have a lot to offer. The expectations are high and duly met in almost every instance. I enjoyed this novella thoroughly, as evidenced by how I read it — from beginning to end in a single sitting. I didn’t want to put it down and I eagerly await any other stories that are set on this world in the future.

Publication date: April 5, 2016. Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. No Solicitations. No Visitors. No Quests. 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.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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4 comments

  1. This sounds interesting, I don’t think I’ve read any “after” stories so might give the genre a go!

  2. Like I said in the review, I like the ‘old ideas made new’ thing and this was a good one! There are lots though no? I’m thinking of things like Wicked (the musical) by Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz and the Dorothy Must Die series by Danielle Paige, both are further stories about/in Oz. Or all of the Alice in Wonderland retellings and inspired stories: Alice by Christina Henry, After Alice by Gregory Maguire, Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter. And for me a lot of Holly Black fits into this area of fantasy in how she takes familiar themes and ideas from fairy tales and makes them weird or takes them beyond the happy or the ever after. I think what I meant by the ‘after’ really concerned just ‘more’ beyond or outside of the happily ever after of classic books and stories for children.

  3. This sounds like an interesting novella! Definitely adding it to my TBR. :)

  4. Great review, Skye. I loved this novella, too; I’ll have to write a short review to add to yours.

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