Finding Home: A Review of Every Heart A Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway (2016) 
Written by: Seanan McGuire
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 174 (Kindle)
Publisher: Tor.com

Why I chose it: I first heard of Seanan McGuire back in 2009 when I picked up Feed by Mira Grant at the bookstore. Feed is a novel about an internet blogging team covering a presidential campaign about 25 years or so after the zombie uprising. I hadn’t read a ton of zombie novels at the time, and I loved that it wasn’t actually really about the uprising so much as it was about adapting to life after. In searching for other books by the author, I found out that Grant is a pen name for Seanan McGuire. McGuire writes urban fantasy, Grant writes science-y horror. At the time, I just wanted more science-y horror so I put McGuire on the back burner. This was roughly eight years ago, and McGuire’s been simmering for a while. When this novella was offered as a review assignment as a Nebula nominee, I volunteered to finally find out if McGuire strikes the same tone as Grant, if their voices are distinguishable by more than just the subject matter of the books.

The premise:

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.

Some minor spoilers ahead.


Discussion: The premise of this novella is perhaps the most interesting thing about it, which is probably a good thing since the premise informs so much of the plot. Children, mostly girls, fall into holes, open strange doorways in their basements, play hide and seek in a chest in the attic and find a stairway to another world. They spend time in these magical worlds, growing older and wiser, having adventures, overthrowing magical kingdoms, falling in love with fairies or spider princes, before they’re abruptly thrust back into their old lives for various reasons, either with a promise to return later or an expulsion for good.

Think Alice and her Wonderland, think of the Pevensie children and Narnia. (Both of which, by the way, are mentioned in this novella.) And then wonder what life must have been like back in the “real” world, readjusting to the mundane day-to-day. The setting of this story is the boarding school that desperate parents send their wayward children to, to help them adjust back to life in the real world. These parents don’t believe the fantastical stories their children tell them, and a very real distinction is drawn in the mind of the main characters between “home” (the world on the other side of the door) and “where their parents live.”

And, it must be said, above all, these children want to go home.

The novella begins with the arrival of Nancy, a 17 year old girl who had spent years in the Underworld, dancing with the Lord of the Dead and alternately standing still as a statue, surviving on drops of pomegranate juice. She is sent to the school by parents who don’t understand what she’s been through, why she won’t wear colors anymore, why food feels too heavy in her stomach. It is through her lens that we are introduced to the worlds these children end up in, which aren’t always named but are generally referred to by their categories: Logic versus Nonsense and Virtue versus Wicked. For instance, Wonderland is an example of Nonsense world where Narnia would be an example of Logic, as rules don’t seem to apply in Wonderland but definitely do in Narnia.

It’s shortly after Nancy arrives that her classmates start dying. First her roommate, Sumi, is found in the hallway of the school, her hands cut off. Another classmate is found with her eyes removed, and a teacher loses her brain. This novella is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Nancy and her new friends are accused of being the murderers and are actually at times tasked with taking care of hiding or removing the bodies, as the school is reluctant to involve the police and risk being shut down.

The mystery is interesting and ultimately comes to a satisfactory conclusion, but the true strength of this novella is in its richly drawn characters. Nancy, who longs to return to the cool, dark Underworld, is also asexual, and time is spent on a thoughtful development of this:

Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realizing that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in. (Location 1248, Kindle Edition)

Reading a character like this would have been so important in the development of young Merrin, I’m glad there are stories being written that encompass a wider variety of sexualities.

Also at the school is Kade, the great-great-great nephew of school proprietor Eleanor West. He was snatched by fairies as a young child and taken to a high Logic world to be princess of the fairies. He kills the Goblin King for the fairies and is made the Goblin King’s heir with his dying breath, which is when the fairies find out that while his outward appearance is that of a girl, he’s actually a boy.

“They thought they had snicker-snatched a little girl — fairies love taking little girls, it’s like an addiction with them — and when they found out they had a little boy who just looked like a little girl on the outside, uh-oh, donesies. They threw him right back.” (Location 325)

As this is the second piece of literature in a row I’ve read with a trans character, I’m overall hopeful for the future of literature that appeals to the young adult market and its inclusiveness and representation.

Every Heart a Doorway is not classified as young adult, but there’s definitely appeal for the 12 to 18 age range. Tied into these characters is the longing they feel for home, and the wistful way they describe how they fit in there, how these various worlds they found themselves in are the only place they ever truly felt like themselves. A long-standing hallmark of fiction that appeals to young adults is finding your place, or your friends, or wherever it is that you truly fit. The real tragedy of this novella (secondary, I guess, to the actual deaths described) is how few of these children ever make their way back to these places.

As to whether or not McGuire strikes the same tone as when she writes as Mira Grant, I’m very pleased to report that both pen names have very different styles. I love the Newsflesh trilogy, but couldn’t get into the Parasitology books as much because it just felt like Grant was striking the same note with different wrapping. These characters were different, the tone of the novel was different. It was all a very welcome change from what I expected.

Every Heart a Doorway is listed as “Wayward Children 1” on Amazon, and the second installment in the series is due out in June 2017.

In conclusion: Every Heart a Doorway is a beautiful and haunting little story about a group of children looking for their homes, plagued by having to deal with the real world, parents who don’t understand them, and a longing for what they no longer have and may never have again. Does it deserve the top spot on the ballot? I haven’t read the other novellas on offer (yet), but I could make a decent case for this one regardless. Either way, I’ll definitely be back for the second installment in June.

4 Comments

  • Shara White May 16, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    I’m very much looking forward to seeing where the sequel/companion piece takes us. I’d forgotten how dark this novella got until I read your review, but it is something how almost all the portal stories we get involve girls getting whisked away to other worlds… Alice, Dorothy… at least Narnia was two boys and two girls (poor Susan…. ). I love how McGuire pounces on the concept and explores the aftermath.

    Reply
  • Kelly McCarty May 16, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    I’m not normally a novella reader but this one sounds interesting. I’ve always wondered why Seanan McGuire writes under two different names. Maybe this is me not being that much of a speculative fiction reader, but I think urban fantasy and science fiction/horror are more alike than different. It doesn’t make sense to me that an author would make it hard for readers to find their other books. I would get it if someone wrote in very different genres, like serious adult literature and young adult romance, but this one I don’t get.

    Reply
    • Shara White May 16, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      I asked that question when I met McGuire at ConNooga. The reason was because basically, McGuire had two different novels come out too close together (of two different series), and bookstores order copies of novels based on previous sales. The kicker was that pre-orders happen WAY in advance, and when copies of FEED (which ended up being under the Mira Grant pen name) would be up for order, there would be no telling if McGuire’s debut urban fantasy book would be selling like hotcakes (which would ensure Barnes & Noble and Borders would order lots of copies) or if it was a flop (which would ensure those same bookstores to order like, two copies of FEED, even though the books were nothing alike). So, rather than gamble on how well the October Daye series might be performing at that time, they decided to market the FEED trilogy under a pen name, because bookstores will order debut novels based on the strength of the marketing push rather than the author’s previous sales. It was an open secret: McGuire talked about it on her blog, so by time the book came out, people who were fans of her October Daye books could totally go get it, but people who didn’t know but just heard about this Mira Grant book about zombies wouldn’t count it against her, that she also wrote urban fantasy books. Because I think that happened, when some readers discovered that Mira Grant was Seanan McGuire, author of urban fantasy, and OMG they wouldn’t have taken FEED seriously if they’d known that!

      Reply
    • Shara White May 16, 2017 at 7:14 pm

      I should also note, that as a reader of both Grant and McGuire, there’s a distinct difference. With Grant the focus of her work is horror with a healthy dose of science thrown in. With McGuire, the focus of the work is fantasy, sometimes dark fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless.

      Reply

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