Thoughts: Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Oh boy.

How can such a short book be so all over the place?

I really wanted to love this one. I’m sorry. It just didn’t work for me. I’m also sorry because this post is about as long as the book itself. (Spoilers everywhere, because I need to talk about every little thing that annoyed me. I’m not joking, I spoil everything in this post. This one is really just for me, not to be helpful to prospective readers!)

Where to begin, Dear Reader? OK, the premise is: there is a school for kids who come back from portal fantasy worlds who are having difficulty readjusting to life in the mundane world. So far, so yes. I loved the Narnia books as a wee bairn, I continue to love books like Neverwhere and Un Lun Dun and anything where people slip from one world to another. And now we get to find out what happens next! It should have been right up my alley!

Every Heart A Doorway has two sections, and they may as well have been two different books. The first section is just an introduction to the school and main characters, basically, and it felt like McGuire had come up with this cool idea for a setting and didn’t really have a plot, so she was noodling around until something occurred to her. I’m not, in principle, opposed to stories like that, especially short stories and novellas. I can appreciate a little luxuriating in a fantasy world. I am a Tolkien fan. I am a Silmarillion fan. Give me the atmosphere. Give me the lore.

It did not give me these things!

This section of Every Heart A Doorway felt perversely rushed. It was a whistle-stop tour of the clichéd beginning: we meet Eleanor West, the headmistress, or Dumbledore, if you will, of the magical boarding school, then we meet our alleged protagonist Nancy, we learn she spent time in a fantasy underworld being a living statue for the Lady of Shadows and dancing waltzes with the Lord of Death, who she seemed to have quite the fondness for (don’t worry, we don’t get to explore the uneasiness of this relationship, in its unequal power dynamics and dubious motives, at all! It will remain entirely unexamined forever!), we learn Nancy is a goth but she used to not be, and her parents would like her to stop being a goth now thank you so they have sent her to a boarding school that promises to cure her of her trauma from going missing, which has given her all these delusions about death and underworlds and pomegranates. Then we meet other characters – Sumi who is basically Alice out of Wonderland, Kade the Hot Trans Boy who got kicked out of Fairyland because Fairyland hates boys(?), Jack and Jill the Hammer Horror twins (mad scientist assistant and vampire protégée respectively), Lundy the world’s worst therapist who ages backwards…

Apart from the frustrating insistence of every character, including Eleanor and Lundy, whose jobs are literally teaching, to talk to Nancy in jargon from the start and refuse to explain themselves (which is a trope I hate so much, so much), I was kind of annoyed by Nancy in turn, who refused to even try to use context clues to get at least the gist of what the characters were talking about. I did! I used context clues and worked out vaguely what they were talking about and I’ve never even been to a fantasy world! Nancy hates quickness and hurrying so you could argue that she’s just taking her time, but also the thing about these fantasy worlds is that they are said to choose their children (by the way, all of the characters are in their late teens, which feels really weird for portal fantasy? They’re not implied to have spent a long time at this boarding school either) and they choose children they need, children that fit, and how can you fit into a fantasy world in need of a child-hero if you can’t adapt quickly? I dunno, it just feels like Nancy of all people should have been… quicker on the uptake about this exact kind of thing.

The first half feels kind of shallow, and I can’t pinpoint why. The school feels generic – it’s a big posh manor house run by an eccentric old lady who’s Older Than She Seems and speaks in Whimsical Yet Wise Soundbytes – and the characters are pretty one-dimensional. It doesn’t really feel real, like no one is looking for their doors on the sly, none of the non-main characters are ever seen doing weird stuff that they learned in their worlds, no one seems to really do much other than talk to each other in a variety of different settings. I’m not sure at all what they’re supposed to be getting out of this school.

The whimsy at the beginning feels really put-on to me as well, just, very self-conscious and trying to be Professor Kirke or Dumbledore. Absurdity is hard to write well, and McGuire didn’t convince me. There were these lines scattered throughout as well, that just felt designed to be highlighted on Kindle.

The group therapy sessions with Lundy seem pointless – they just talk about their worlds unguided, unexamined, unshared with us-the-reader, in a way that feels like it must have been done in the introductory session (Nancy is the only new student right now). Maybe it’s just that Nancy isn’t very interested in the other students? In which case… is she the best protagonist? More on that in a bit. Anyway, during one of the sessions in the second half, when Lundy is telling them they probably will never be able to go back to their fantasy worlds, Eleanor pops in and basically tells Lundy she’s being bad at her job, and that she wants nothing more than for all the kids to go back to their fantasy worlds. But we know some people can’t! Kade, for example, will never be accepted back, and she herself knows that some kinds of worlds are impossible for adults to live in (like hers is – she’s waiting to become senile enough to be able to tolerate the capital-n Nonsense world that is her soul’s true home) so are not long-term solutions, so what on earth is she expecting them to take away from this? What does she want Lundy to do? What is going on? What is the point? Why don’t they have smaller groups tailored to the different needs of these wildly different people?

The second half decides it is a murder mystery.

So we have a plot now, which is great, but it still all feels rushed, and also Nancy doesn’t actually do anything really? The problem with Nancy is that this isn’t really her story. She is completely superfluous to it. She gets to freeze in place a couple of times, and flirt with Kade a bit, and think about how rubbish it is that no one accepts that she’s asexual (one of the things her parents do aside from demanding she dress in colours and “eat every day” [she doesn’t need to because she has been to the Land of the Dead where she only needs a swig of pomegranate juice every month or whatever] is set her up on dates with boys, which sure, is something parents in the world definitely do). She gets to make one deduction, which I didn’t realise was meant to be up for deduction because I thought it was quite obvious*. She gets to be suspected because she’s the new girl and she went to a death world. She gets to help dispose of a body (by helping I mean making the corpse look dignified before it is summarily dissolved in acid, a task that the headmistress asked a group of students to do).

None of her plot-affecting actions feel particularly unique to her. Even when she gets to stealthily spot the murderer- oh, why am I being coy? It’s the vampire protégée. Anyway, even when she gets to spot the murderer using her Halls Of The Dead Stealth, it’s rendered moot because the murderer has already revealed herself stabbily to her twin.

Because this is the thing: it would have been more interesting as Jack and Jill’s story.

Their arc is more defined – they were squished into the Smart and Pretty boxes by their terrible parents, and then got to go to a fantasy world where they could truly, finally be themselves as they wanted to be. On the way, Jack came into her own and was accepted, while Jill was not as adept as she was, and was driven out. Jack followed, unwilling to leave her sister behind. And while Jill was on her little murder spree, desperate to get back, deluding herself about the reasons they had to leave, Jack remains firmly in denial until Jill literally stabs her, offscreen by the way, and it’s impossible to ignore. I think if Jack’s arc had been the focus it would have been a more compelling, consistent, coherent story.

Thematically it kind of feels like a mess too. One of the running themes is this idea of the unintentional harm parents can do their children, with the best wills in the world, by not being able to accept them for who they are, and just in case you didn’t get it, it’s repeated in the narration just to hammer it right in. At one point Eleanor offers her own doorway to the students who will be able to enter it, in order to keep them temporarily safe from the serial killer, thus upsetting students who can’t use her door, I think, and Nancy thinks that Eleanor is trying to help them, but she’s actually hurting them. It just felt like such a jarring thought. And also, what is Eleanor supposed to do here? Not take measures to keep anyone safe because there’s no one-size-fits-all answer?

Another thing is that the portal worlds are presented as the students’ truest homes, like mirrors of their real selves, where they can be who they truly are, but I’m not sure how exactly this ties in to the other thread about parents having to accept that their children are real people and indeed becoming adults – the time dilation of portal fantasy worlds is a big feature here, and thus the maturity/experience of the returnees mismatching those of their peers and their parents’ expectations – but the worlds remain in traditional portal fantasy manner, quite… young, if you catch my drift? Or, maybe that isn’t the right word, but…softened? The underworldy worlds are all about death, sure, but they are ultimately afterlives, in which death is not an ending. Jack’s world of dissection and mad science may seem gory and grim, but it’s also a world where resurrection is easy and anything is possible without facing any real consequences. Other worlds are all about sunshine, rainbows and unicorn tears, apparently. So which is it? Are they the realest reality, or are they escapism?

The last thing I’m going to mention that annoyed me was the “not like other girls” aspect of the main group. I get it, they went to the dark and edgy/dark and ~tragically beautful~ portal worlds. They’re weird. They’re weirdos. They don’t fit in, and they don’t want to fit in. Have you ever seen them without this stupid hat on? That’s weird.

It just felt like the rift between the light/dark worlds was shoehorned in to add some mean girl drama and random bigotry out of nowhere (I just don’t think I can imagine a portal fantasy survivor not understanding trans gender identities? If you want me to understand it, I think you might have to go a little further in than McGuire did). Just another undeveloped idea that could have been interesting to throw on the pile, I suppose.

In the end, I didn’t hate Nancy – I love a weird goth girl as much as the next person, and I also enjoy pomegranates and quietness, but it just felt like the story wasn’t really about her, and that was a shame. I wanted to see more of the different worlds as well. McGuire’s little teasers of them were genuinely great, and it would have gone a long way to humanise the other students.

It feels so good but also like blasphemy to have said all this. I just did not get on with this story; it didn’t hang together for me either thematically or as a straight-up story. I can now move on with a light heart, through the door that will lead me out of this series, never to return.

*Riddle me this: Victim A gets murdered and her hands chopped off. While packing up the dead girl’s room that evening, Nancy thinks about how good she was with her hands. The next day, we are told that Victim B has really good eyesight because she went to a tiny spider world. She gets immediately murdered and her eyes gouged out. Victim C has professional qualifications and when she is murdered her brain is scooped out. What is the link between these murders? Could it be the one trait these characters have? Surely not.

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