Every Heart a Doorway: Two takes on this Nebula winner

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Bill’s new review.

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.

~Skye Walker

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsWell, I’m a long ways away from Skye’s (and most others’ apparently) view of Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. I confess that every few pages I kept asking myself, “How in the world did this get nominated for awards?” In the end, I had no idea. I’ll let you read Skye’s summary and just zip through my major issues with the book.

Though I should first note that there were a number of positives. On a sentence level there’s a lot of good writing going on here and even in the short time we spend with them the characters are vividly portrayed. I loved the little snippets we get of the various fantasy worlds and the way McGuire turns the typical fantasy world just a little sideways and dark. But too many times there’d be a bit of forced or implausible plotting and I’d be completely kicked out of any enjoyment I might have been beginning to feel.

Nothing in the reaction to the murders, for instance, made any sense whatsoever, not just the emotional response (Skye notes a possible explanation for that, though I think that only goes so far) but simply the pragmatic one. There’s a killer on the loose, nobody knows who it is, but suspicion is strong it’s a student, and the suggestion is to go around in pairs? Classes just continue? Someone actually says, “This will all look better in the morning”? How? Nobody gets questioned? Nobody does any investigating? Characters wander off into reveries moments after seeing a gruesomely violated body? Yes, these aren’t “normal” kids, but just on a purely basic level none of this at any moment felt like anything anyone would ever actually do (or not do). Worse, there’s actually a literal witness, somebody who can absolutely and easily identify the killer, and when a single question is asked of them, and they give a single allegedly cryptic response (which should not have been at all cryptic after perhaps ten seconds, maybe, of thought), that’s it. No second or third question. Nothing of what should have been the blindingly obvious approach to figuring it out (and this from someone presented as coolly practical and scientific!). And when the characters do manage to see the blindingly obvious, it’s discussed as if it’s someone’s Holmesian bit of deduction. My notes on this just kept getting angrier and angrier, eventually just becoming single words like, “Seriously??” or “Really?”

Another complaint was that some aspects felt forced. I liked the diversity of the characters, and the really thoughtful, gentle approach taken to gender/sexuality issues, but the execution of it came across as unsubtle (to be fair — this may have been ameliorated by a novel-length work that had the freedom of time). Similarly, a section on how the school is mostly girls because boys get noticed when they go missing made for a nice line (“We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”) but how many TV news stories about missing kids are about boys as opposed to girls (to be more precise, white girls)? Nor would I agree with Skye on the worldbuilding, which felt very thin to me. And while I won’t discuss the ending because of spoilers, I will note I had some major issues with that as well. So yeah, not at all a fan. Mostly a very puzzled (and annoyed) reader. But I’m clearly the minority on this, so I suggest paying more attention to Skye’s review and seeing how you react yourself.

~Bill Capossere

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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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  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.

  5. After Bill’s, I’d love to read Terry’s review of this work. I liked the asexuality of the main character and thought that was handled well throughout.

    Having read two of McGuire’s novellas now, I think this is not the optimum length for her. As to what makes this story so popular, I think it’s the idea (the embedded idea of not being able to go back to the world of your heart) and the lovely writing.

    • McGuire’s short stories are frequently successful, and the novels I’ve read of hers have been good. I will firmly hold up “Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day” as proof that she can write a great novella, though. Maybe it’s an issue of working out the kinks and being able to consistently fit a good story into a medium-length format?

      • Arcanist Lupus /

        I think a big problem is that Seanan McGuire struggles when writing whodunits. Even DoDoDoD has some issues there, although not as badly as this novella does.

        • And whodunits AREN’T easy to do well.

          • Those were certainly the elements I had the biggest problem with. I could have lived with the other issues had the core issues not been so glaring. And as Marion says, they aren’t easy to do. One wonders if this is similar to when non-genre writers think–eh, how hard can fantasy be–it’s all made up?–and pull some horrible execution of the genre element

  6. Anne /

    Good reviews! Added to my to-read shelf!


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