Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway  by Seanan McGuire

Nancy went through a door to the Halls of the Dead.  She learned to enjoy the skill of remaining perfectly still, and wearing elegant black and white clothing.  When she asked to stay forever, the Lord of the Dead asked her to be sure–and sent her home.  The journey changed her, and Nancy’s parents can’t understand why she isn’t their “little rainbow” any more.  But somehow they’ve learned of a place that might be able to help.

Every Heart a Doorway

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school for young people with the “delusion” that they went to another world and want to return rather than stay on Earth.  It seems that a fair number of children every year walk through doors or fall through mirrors or get lost in the woods, and find Fairyland or the Webworld or the Moors.  Some of them never return and are indistinguishable from missing children that just died, but others return by their own will or another’s.  Maybe they aged out, or they broke the Rules, or they just went home to say goodbye and couldn’t find the entrance again.

And a certain number of those returnees are able to adjust to life back on Earth, and get on with their lives, but the ones who can’t and are lucky enough find their way to the Home.  There they’ll live among people who more or less understand what they’ve been through and get education until they can either live with their memories or find their way back where they belong.  (There’s a sister school in Maine for kids who went to the absolute wrong world and need treatment for their trauma.)

Nancy meets Eleanor West (who could go back anytime but no longer has the childish mindset needed to thrive in her Nonsense world), and is made roommates with Sumi, who went to a candy-themed dimension, and has become a madcap bundle of clashing bright colors and energy.    Despite their very different styles, Sumi takes a liking to Nancy and drags her around to meet some of the other students.

There’s Kade, who was tossed out when the fairies discovered he was a prince instead of the princess they wanted.  Jack (short for Jacqueline) and Jill (short for Jillian), whose mentors were a mad scientist and vampire respectively, and left their world one step ahead of a pitchfork and torch-bearing mob.  Christopher, who can make skeletons dance, and twenty or thirty others.

Nancy is just beginning to learn the ropes and settle in when one of the students is mutilated and murdered.  And that’s only the first death.  Nancy comes in for some suspicious as she’s been to an Underworld and the murders started after her arrival, but she’s pretty sure she isn’t responsible.  But who or what is, and why?

This dark fantasy young adult novel is by Seanan McGuire, who does a nice line in urban fantasy and horror.   Kids going to fantasy worlds has been a sub-genre of speculative fiction for decades; Narnia is mentioned (though it’s considered unrealistic by the students–they think it’s just fiction.)  In Japan they’re called isekai stories and are so common that one literary prize banned them from consideration for a year.   But few stories have considered that all these tales are taking place on the same Earth, and what aftereffects that might have.

The proceedings are a bit gruesome, and more sensitive junior high readers might want to skip this one until they are ready.

The writing quality is excellent, and there are a number of fascinating characters.  That said, the majority of the students are self-centered to a degree I found unsympathetic, which may make sense for troubled teens but does not please me.   The mystery aspect was pretty easy for me to figure out, and most savvy readers should figure it out a few pages before the protagonists do.

At some level, this book is metaphorically about how young people find their own identities in adolescence, often very different from what seemed to be the case in childhood, and their parents and other authority figures sometimes are not able to accept this.   This is most directly addressed with Kade, whose parents will welcome him any time he starts calling himself “Katie” again.

This book has been amazingly popular with its intended audience, and there are two more so far in the Wayward Children series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (prequel) and Beneath the Sugar Sky (a sequel with a very surprising character.)  I am hoping at some point we’ll see the sister school and some of its students.

Recommended to young adult fantasy fans, with a slight emphasis on girls.

And here’s the Japanese equivalent, which is more heavily aimed at boys:

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Comic Book Review: Whiteout / Whiteout: Melt

Comic Book Review: Whiteout/Whiteout: Melt written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Steve Lieber

Carrie Stetko is a U.S. Marshal who’s been reassigned to Antarctica after an…incident at work and the death of her husband.  It’s been a fairly quiet duty post, and Marshal Stetko is getting to feel at home on the Ice.  Then a drilling expedition disappears, leaving only a badly mangled, nearly unidentifiable corpse at the site.

Whiteout

There is murder afoot, and soon Carrie is fighting for her life, not without losses.  She’s no longer sure who she can trust, especially British investigator Lily Sharpe, who most assuredly has her own agenda.  Worse, the investigation must be completed before the mass evacuation of personnel as winter approaches

Melt is a sequel.  Marshal Stetko is called back to the Antarctic from her first vacation in years when a Russian science station explodes.  Certain government agencies want to know if there was anything…against treaty…going on at the station.  Carrie quickly learns the explosion was no accident, and must team up with Russian agent Captain Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuchin.  It seems there might have been something illegal at the station after all, and Carrie must decide between her priorities.

Melt

Assuming the Ice lets anyone survive the chase.

These thrillers are written by Greg Rucka, who is known for his research and attention to detail,   The first volume is a bit more of a mystery than the latter, which is much more about survival.  Art is by Steve Lieber, who took the challenge of a black and white series where white is the dominant color, and used a variety of inking tools to great effect.

This is exciting stuff.  Antarctica is one of the most hostile places on Earth even in good weather.  Add bad weather and human murderousness, and Carrie is fighting for her life most of the time.

The first volume has an attempted rape, and several closeups of Marshal Stetko’s mangled hand.  Melt has some nudity and a (non-explicit, consensual) sex scene.  Both volumes have some harsh language.  As such, parents should heed the “Older Audiences” rating Oni Press has given the books.

There was a Whiteout movie made which takes much of its plot from the first volume.  Marshal Stetko was prettied up quite a bit, Lily Sharpe was replaced by a more conventional male investigative partner, and Carrie’s competence level was lowered somewhat to allow the male heroic characters more to do.  This is believed to have contributed to a relatively poor critical reception.

I recommend this series for thriller fans, lovers of ice and snow, and people who saw the movie.

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