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.
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: