Every Heart a Doorway: Four takes on this Nebula winner

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Tim’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.

Seanan McGuire

~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

Sequel


Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsI would love to be a tiebreaker between Skye and Bill, but I’m coming down pretty much exactly in the middle between them. Way to take a stand! But I have my reasons for landing where I do.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is, so Eleanor tells the concerned relatives of children who claim to have gone through a magical portal to a different world, a boarding school where they will help to cure your child’s delusions. Eleanor is lying through her teeth. Her school is actually the opposite: it’s a place where these children and teens will be not only believed, but understood, and where they will have the company of others who, like them, desperately long to find a door that will take them back to the magical land they love, the place they feel they truly belong. Eleanor herself, in fact, had come from such a magical place, and still longs to go back. But magical portals are tricky things, and most of those who are sent back to our world, for various reasons, are never able to find their way back again.

Nancy Whitman, a new arrival at Eleanor West’s school, is one such girl, desperately unhappy to be parted from the quiet, still underworld where she served the Lord of the Dead, and thrown back into a busy world that is too colorful and restless. She begins to adjust to life at the school, where they spend most of their time examining the issues with portals and dividing magical lands according to their nature (Logic vs. Nonsense, Virtue vs. Wickedness). But when Nancy has been there only a couple of days, there is a shocking murder of one of the students and, soon after, another murder. Suspicion of each other mounts among the students at the Home for Wayward Children, and accusations fly.

Every Heart a Doorway is an excellent novella in many ways. With evocative writing laced with sly humor, Seanan McGuire explores the feelings of those who are misfits in our world: their longing for what has been lost and might never be found again, the pain of not being understood, and of not belonging where they are now. These themes of being lost and misunderstood mesh well with the diverse cast of characters: Nancy is asexual; her roommate Sumi is of Japanese descent; their friend Kade has gender dysphoria, identifying as a boy though he is genetically a girl; Jack and Jill, identical twins, could hardly be more dissimilar in their characters. The diversity of characters, and the diversity of fantasy worlds that each of these characters longs for, made for an intriguing novella with a lot of different angles and facets to consider.

Unfortunately, the plot was weaker than the world-building. It was almost impossible to suspend disbelief to the extent necessary to buy into the bizarre way in which the murder investigation is handled by Eleanor and others. The reasoning of the murderer, when eventually revealed, is pretty much ludicrous unless that character is just completely unhinged. And, as a mother, I was unsettled by the book’s dismissive attitude toward parents “who would never understand,” and that most of these children would leave their families behind forever without a second thought or even a good-bye, the unspoken message being that these parents deserve it because they’ve emotionally abandoned their kids by failing to believe their stories of their lives in an alternate magical world.

When Nancy asks one of the teachers why there are so many more girls than boys at the school, she is told:

“Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lundy. “They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.” 

Those two final sentences are eminently quotable, and at least the last sentence is too often true, but I’m not convinced by the logic tying those statements to the idea that it’s mostly girls who find their way to fantasy portals. After all, once a child enters through a magical portal, it doesn’t really matter how hard his or her parents search. That child simply isn’t going to be found by a search party! And in my experience parents generally are, if anything, more protective of their daughters than their sons.

Still, if you’re a reader who isn’t likely to be too bothered by logical holes or a liberal social viewpoint, Every Heart a Doorway is a fascinating world to enter, through the magical portal that McGuire creates for us as readers. It’s often insightful and deeply sympathetic toward those who are different, with an affirmative message. 

That was her real story. Finding a place where she could be free. That’s your story, too, every one of you.

~Tadiana Jones


Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsSeanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway is an excellent novella in a lot of very classy ways. It’s an elegantly written piece full of delightful turns of phrase, it’s rife with lush imagery, it’s thematically dense, and the characters presented are interesting and distinct. On the other hand, this is also a novella that simply does not have a lot of interest in plot or narrative momentum. Not to say that it turns its nose up at these elements, but they’re definitely playing second fiddle to the prettier, more emotional aspects of the story. In another work this would be fine, but McGuire can’t quite seem to decide what she wants her proportions to be, and is left with a piece that is ultimately too short for her ambitions (in regard to plot) but perhaps a smidge too long to let us overlook that those ambitions exist. It’s a beautiful novella, but — perhaps ironically, given the themes under consideration — seems a bit confused as to its own identity.

Quick summary: there are doors that occasionally open onto fantastical realms, through which children can journey into alternate worlds (in a very fun bit of playing with the old “Otherworld” premise from series like Narnia and Oz). These children often return after a time to the real world, and if they have trouble adjusting to their old lives they are quickly offered a place at a very special boarding school run by a woman who experienced the same. There they can learn to let go and live new lives, or if letting go is off the table, they can at least be around people who have experienced the same as they have and can understand their trauma. Our protagonist Nancy was until recently living in an Underworld of some description, and since her return she has found that her parents are incapable of understanding her new identity as a servant of the Lord of the Dead (admittedly, that seems like a tough sell). She arrives at the school and serves as our point-of-view character in a murder mystery that quickly follows her arrival.

All right, so obviously we already have a work that — despite its immensely fun premise — is actually not all that interested in the fantastical elements. That is to say, McGuire seems aware that she has a cool concept on her hands and makes some solid steps in the direction of exploring it, but she never develops it very far beyond the basic strokes because her focus is much more on the subtext, on identity and feeling like an outsider, specifically through the experience of being an adolescent girl. Yes, Nancy literally came from another world, but her disconnect with her parents is much more a symbolic representation of the tension between her experience as an asexual person and her parents’ expectations of her than it is about having had rad adventures in the Underworld and now being forced to wear pink blouses. Likewise, the in-universe explanation for why most of these children are female is hand-wavey fluff on a level with Peter Pan’s explaining that there are no Lost Girls because girls don’t fall out of their prams, but that doesn’t really matter — the point McGuire wants to make is that women are more often left out in the cold by society than are men, and so of course her teenage outsiders have to be mostly female.

On that level, the story does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The characters are a lot of fun, the language is rich and evocative, and McGuire explores her themes in a way that will be very satisfactory to her intended audience. It also manages to be a fun bit of speculative fiction, though the lit fic symbolism is clearly more important to McGuire.

There is a problem with the book, though, and it’s that murder mystery plot I mentioned above. To be frank, it’s held together by safety pins and good intentions. Now because this is such a symbolic novella with such a literary style, the fact that the plot is barely functional isn’t going to be a major problem for some of its readership. They are not much more interested in the surface level than is McGuire, and the issues will arise when and if a genre readership gets hold of this book. A murder mystery is one of the most venerable of genre fiction structures, and for good reason. It provides immediate tension without the need for much explanation, it has an obvious endpoint (when the murderer is revealed), and above all there is practically no reader out there who cannot slip into this old familiar plot structure as easily as they would into a favorite jacket. The writer of a murder mystery does not have to sell it or explain it. All we as readers need is an early pool of suspects followed by a body, and we are onboard for this roller coaster ride, already leaning into the first curve.

McGuire, on the other hand, just doesn’t seem too fussed about it. We get a pool of maybe four plausible suspects, and out of that pool one is killed and two are cruelly discriminated against by the local mean girls. Maybe there’s an author out there who’s politically tone deaf enough to make the bullied transexual into the dastardly killer, but Seanan McGuire would cross the street if she saw that author coming the other way along the sidewalk. So if the reader is paying attention at all, s/he will know the murderer’s identity by about the halfway point, making the rest of the “mystery” feel oddly perfunctory.

It really seems that McGuire is much more interested in emotion and theme than in the mystery, meaning that in the context of her surface level plot, her characters come across as hilariously unpragmatic. For most of the unfolding awfulness, the headmistress does nothing but look troubled, and at one point honest-to-god says something along the lines of “Sleep well, my darlings. Everything will look better in the morning.” Really, now? Are the victims going to be less dead by then? The headmistress doesn’t want to bring in the police (for reasons), but there’s no real effort to investigate in-house either. Many of the pupils have magical abilities of some form or another, but no one tries to get them organized and use these powers to solve the murder. There’s not even much in the way of urgency. Everyone just kind of says “oh, how awful… ” and drifts away to reflect on the need for safe spaces. When a boy mentions later on that he can reanimate and talk to skeletons, blithely wondering whether maybe he ought to try that with one of the rapidly accumulating corpses, it’s hard to suppress the desire to reach into the novel and slap him, maybe stopping along the way to shake all the twee affectation out of that silly headmistress while we’re at it.

So the mystery doesn’t work, and that’s the real reason I’ve dropped this novella a couple of stars. Every Heart a Doorway exists at a point of intersection between literary fiction and fantasy fiction (the awkwardly-named subgenre of Magic Realism, in other words), and like any hybrid it will tend to attract readers from both sources. For the literary fiction reader, Every Heart a Doorway will be a well-written story with a lot going for it (though it will ultimately be a little dorky for the true-blue “art appreciation” type, spending too long on world-building and references). To the genre reader, on the other hand, the novella will likely seem underplotted and rather silly (though beautifully crafted).

Perhaps after all that uneasy mixture of influences is the root flaw of Every Heart a Doorway. Despite its fantastic prose and characterization, there’s the sense that McGuire wanted it to do too many things at once. She’s laser-focused on her message in a way that works best in ruminative, literary short fiction, but she has a big, ambitious premise that honestly would be best explored in a more plot-focused novel-length work. The completed novella seems to be her attempt to have the best of both worlds, but the two forms do not fit together without some ragged seams. It feels ambitious to world-build and explore some character growth but reluctant to roll up its sleeves and get to work on a really solid plot or the broader implications of its premise.

~Tim Scheidler

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 an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who’s been with us since June 2011, holds a Master’s Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he’s an athlete.

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11 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.

  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!

  7. Tim’s review is so insightful — everything I wish I’d thought of, and said far better than I could have said it! He’s joined Bill on my list of those whose reviews leave me struggling to cope with a looming inferiority complex.

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