REVIEW: “Every Heart A Doorway”, or: What if all possible fantasylands existed, and you could travel to them? (hint: you’re going to die)

every heart a doorway

Title: Every Heart A Doorway (novelette, 2016 winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Review by: Captain Clo
Verdict: imaginative worldbuilding, unimaginative plot, stilted writing in random places.

I’ve first hear about this book around the time it was nominated for the Nebula Award, since the book also features an asexual female protagonist and a transexual male side character. That said, simply having LGBT characters does not a good book make, and for all that this novelette is definitely enjoyable, it didn’t convince me. But if you:

  • are looking for a fairytale-styled fantasy with an asexual protagonist (which is, let’s face it, extremely rare)
  • like the idea of a trans boy as love interest/charming prince
  • don’t mind purple prose terribly much

this book is for you.

In my opinion, the best thing about this novelette is definitely the worldbuilding. The plot is based on the existence of a number of “fantasylands” or “parallel universes”, accessible through magical doors that only open for specific people (generally children, but not necessarily) at specific times. The core concept is the same as a journey through fairyland, with children spirited away to worlds that fall on two of four “directions”: Wicked or Virtue, Nonsense or Logic. The children pass years of subjective life in these worlds – whereas in the mundane world, only months or even days pass – and they stay willingly, as they feel that these worlds are perfect for them; or at least, those who manage to come back feel that these places resonated with some aspect of their selves so perfectly, that adjusting back to life in the mundane world is completely impossible.
(It’s implied that those who don’t fit in those worlds end up dead. Told you you’re going to die.)

That’s where the setting of the story, the Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, comes into play. The Home is a boarding school for children and teens who have come back from such worlds so deeply changed, they can’t – or don’t want to – live a normal life anymore. Their only desire is to go back, but all of them were either kicked out (fairies are cruel like that, after all) or came back and lost their door. On a certain level, the Home reminded me of an asylum. At first is unclear whether these worlds are real or fabrications of the children’s minds, and a lot of their behaviours, in real life, would be considered signs of a deteriorating mental health. The protagonist, for example, went to an Underworld where people were forced to act as statues – without moving, eating, drinking or sleeping – and she learned that act so well, once she returned to the real world she claims she can eat and drink very little without problem. Her meals consist of fruit juice and a few fruits, and it’s easy to see in this a sign (a metaphor?) of anorexia. Most of the children in the boarding school have similar “disorders”, but in the end, their experiences are real, and so are the worlds they went to.

The descriptions of the worlds and how the children fit in them are all pretty interesting. There are worlds more obviously based on faitytales – with Goblin Kings and quests – and some based on classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Every world explains the idiosyncrasies of the children who came back from them. In their own vision, they came back as a truer version of themselves; according to their parents, they came back wrong. And so they send them to the Home to be fixed. On the one hand, the children are changed in ways that make them unable to live normally; all of them are obsessed with the idea of going back, and all of them hate who they were before. They can’t empathize with the parents who were left in anguish for months, and then had their children back, but so changed as to seem mentally ill. At the same time, however, all the parents who get a description are fundamentally bad parents. For example, Kade’s parents can’t accept his trans identity, which emerged once he came back, and want him to act like the “girl he was before”. The protagonist’s parents dig through her luggage and change all her chosen clothes for boarding school – all in black and white exclusively – with the more colourful ones she used to wear. Other parents are described as outright abusers. But, at the same time, what some of these children went through in those worlds they love so much IS abuse. The protagonist, Nancy, can’t aceept the simple fact that the world she went to was “High Wicked” – the creatures, or fairies if you want, that dwelled there abused her, forcing her to act as a living statue; she even knows that those who could not perform as well as her were killed, but she thinks nothing of it. She is, simply put, broken, and in mad love with the King of that world.

Unfortunately, the plot of the novelette itself isn’t about any of that; it’s about a string of vicious murders that start when Nancy joins the school. It’s a pretty standard murder story, with a pretty easy-to-spot culprit. I guess you could say that their motivations are more proof of how broken these children are, but… I just spent a page talking about the worldbuilding, and the plot paragraph is over already.

I don’t comment on a book’s writing style unless I find it egregious in some sense. The prose of this novelette made me roll my eyes in some places – random, odd places, not throughout the entire book, which ruined the reading experience. Those purple prose spots jarred my willing suspension of disbelief, and made me think of old-school fiction when goth style was all the rage (no offense to those who were into the rage… I was too). Take the description of Nancy:

“She wore black – black jeans, black ankle boots with tiny black buttons marching like soldiers from toe to calf – and she wore white – a loose tank top, the faux pearls bands around her wrists – and she had a ribbon the color of pomegranate seeds tied around the base of her ponytail. Her hair was bone-white streaked with runnels of black, like oil spilled on a marble floor, and her eyes were pale as ice.”

I can’t, for the life of me, figure out if the author is pulling my leg here. I haven’t read something that screams “edgy teen Mary Sue-self” this hard since My Immortal. Also there is something simply ridiculous in how stereotypically goth the entire concept of the Underworld Nancy went to is – with the fascinating Lord and Lady of the Dead playing wicked games with their subjects, everyone forced to wear black or white, the pomegranate seeds, and the fashion style inspired specifically by Waterhouse. The 17-year-old goth me is cackling. Some other characters are as equally quirky, with elaborate descriptions of their clothes and hair and hairstyle and eye colour… it does set the atmosphere, but it’s also very close to being a mash-up of several teenage “fascinations” for the hell of it. It adds colour, I enjoyed it, but underneath it all, the plot and the style are lacking.

The prose itself is too elaborate at times, adding explanations that are simply obvious, seemingly just for the joy of adding elaborate words – the very definition of purple prose, if you ask me. Take these examples:

“Nancy brought up the rear. Stillness and speed were diametrically opposed. But she did the best she could, and they reached the attic door at roughly the same time.” [Was this even necessary? “They walked to the door” wasn’t enough?]

“But the shaking continued as her traitorous body betrayed her, trembling like a leaf in a hard wind.” [Added appeal of too many alliterations: “traitorous body betrayed trembling”. Wow. That’s way too much. And use of two sets of synonims in one sentence?]

“[She] whimpered behind the gag that covered her mouth, eyes rolling wildly as she looked for a way out. She wasn’t finding one.” [You don’t say.]

“[Loriel said], but the heat was gone; her accusations had been met with reality, and they didn’t have anyplace else to go.” [Am I the only one thinking of a stereotypical high school drama were the mean girl is put in her place?]

Also, the author has a fascination for the Oklahoma accent that I really don’t get. I mean, it’s okay if you like it, that’s not the problem. The problem arises when said accent is described in slash fanfiction style:

“What’n the fuck are you doing in here again, Sumi?” he demanded, Oklahoma accent thick as peanut butter spread across a slice of toast.“

“His drawl grew thicker, dripping from his words like sweet and tempting honey.”

LADY. STOP. PLS.
Well, at least you could argue that Kade is treated exactly the same as a fascinating cis male would be in fanfic…

Another note I want to put out there is how Nancy’s asexuality is brought up in the narration. I can’t put my finger on what exactly didn’t work for me about it, but the two instances in which it was discussed seemed to me like two other parts in which the flow of narration was stilted. In particular, this:

“This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school, just like most of the other girls, and she had always found those practice relationships completely satisfying. It wasn’t until puberty had come along and changed the rules that she’d started pulling away in confusion and disinterest.“

This part is definitely too didactic, giving the reader a lecture on what asexuality is. Although I can understand the need to do so, I think it interrupts the flow of the story. The use of the terms “asexual” and “aromantic” don’t help either, since they’re not much used in common parlance and they sound almost like medical tems. Of course they aren’t, but the use of “ace” would have been better, maybe (it poses the problem of how many readers might know what ace means, of course). Conversely, Kade’s gender identity fits the narration much better. In bits and pieces, the reader learns how his experience in the fairyland he ended up in helped him to discover his identity, and how the discovery had him kicked out of that world. His gender identity is integrated with his backstory, and it works much better.

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