A review by Ghislaine Lai
Every Heart a Doorway
by Seanan McGuire
Tom Doherty Associates
Every Heart a Doorway is for readers who have sat back after a nice portal fantasy—a magical kingdom just over the wall, the Pensieves returned from Narnia, Alice emerging from Wonderland—and thought, Yes, and what’s next?
Nancy has returned from a magical world where she served as a living statue, standing perfectly motionless for days at a time to avoid the ghosts who would have sapped her life away. In the Underworld, she learned to be quiet, to be still, to dress in black and white to please the Lord of the Dead—and there is nothing she would rather do than go back, or better yet, never have left the Halls of the Dead. There are others like her and they gather at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children to grieve their lost fantasylands, to share their experiences with the only people who will understand, and for some, to wait (forever) until they’re invited back to those worlds.
Seanan McGuire arranges the multitude of fantasy worlds on an axis of Logic to Nonsense, Virtue to Wicked, invoking the ridiculousness of beloved children’s tales as well as the well-ordered rules of more traditional quest fantasy. As a girl shares that she’s never found the doorway to get back to the land of epic quests with spiders where she gained magnifying eyes, or a boy talks wistfully about the skeleton girl he’ll never see again, it’s hard not to wish for more of McGuire’s evocative and tantalizing details of these worlds.
Alice and Narnia are name-checked, with the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children bitterly railing against the fantasy of them—not because those famous protagonists went, but that they got to go back. The implied delight and horror of each barely-mentioned backstory makes it feel as though the novella is a detour from the real lives of the students, echoing how most of the students themselves feel.
Amidst this, a murderer is loose in the school. The threat of the murders is more than just death: if the school closes due to the numerous violent deaths, the students will have nowhere to go but a world that they already had no desire to return to. With the handful of characters with speaking parts shrinking with each murder, the culprit is predictable early on, more so amid the heavy hints dropped that our central group went to dark worlds full of death and blood, while the nervous victim-body went to ‘rainbow’ worlds of pastel happiness. The ending, where the majority of the remaining characters return to the worlds they left, feels like the detour has ended without ceremony, a door that closed before we had the chance to do more than glimpse through it.
Though classified as YA literature, this novella is not just for teens. There’s representation in spades that invokes the isolation, loneliness, and struggle for acceptance many of us have felt. Even fairyland will throw back the boy they had kidnapped for not being the girl they wanted him to be; even the living statues will wonder why Nancy doesn’t feel the need to love anyone.
Every Heart a Doorway presents a different type of fantasy for everyone who was bitterly disappointed that the owl didn’t come on their eleventh birthday, and then immediately undercuts it. The theme of the novella is not that a world exists, waiting behind a door you haven’t found yet, where you felt you were everything, but that such a world exists for the students to make for each other—that you can leave or be rejected or lose the place that made you feel special, and still be yourself and still be wanted.