Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

every heart a doorway

Wayward Children Book 1, Tom Doherty Associates, 2016, 169 pgs.

Nancy was once an attendant to the Lord of the Dead himself; after she went through her door, into that other world, she learned quickly to stand still as a corpse, to let the quiet of those colorless halls overtake her. Then the Lord of the Dead sent her back to her own world, so she could be sure she wanted to stay, as though she wasn’t already. Back to her parents and their movement and color and noise. And then, because she refused to denounce her “kidnappers,” from her parents to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Everyone at the school is like her, once the chosen hero of a fairyland or the favorite daughter of some mixed-up, candy colored world. And like her, all of them are trying to heal, trying to cope with the idea that they may never get home again, and trying to keep up hope that they will.

You know, I really thought this book was going that hit me where I live. This was sold to me, basically, as a story for the people who never got to go through the looking glass but always really wanted to, and yes, well, I guess I have to raise my hand there. I was generally expecting to imprint on this book.

I didn’t quite.

Which is not to say that this wasn’t good, or that I wasn’t emotionally invested at all. Just that I was sort of thinking this was going to be another Fangirl, and it wasn’t for me.

That sort of thing is pretty subjective, though, and I can see where and why others could imprint on this in the way that I didn’t. This is only the second book of hers that I’ve read, but in both of my experiences, McGuire’s been a wonderfully solid and inventive writer. Not only does she seem to be consistently good with story structure and character building, she also seems to be consistently interesting.

I’ll get back to that last bit later, but the takeaway here is that, while I didn’t feel some soul-deep connection to the novel, I did really enjoy this book. I was just expecting a little less murder mystery and a little more soul-searching. This is more a question of scale than of content, and even emotionally it definitely had its moments.

I liked pretty much all of the leads, and their struggles and tragedies were relatable. From Kade’s knowledge that he was kicked out of his world, essentially solely, for being trans, to the unfair suspicion leveled against Jack and Jill because of the darkness their world involved, to Nancy’s desperate longing for her world’s stillness and quiet, they all scan pretty well to issues that people might actually have to deal with.

And there are some beautiful, heart-wrenching passages here that detail exactly what it feels like to finally be seen as yourself, to finally find the place where you belong, and then to lose that. McGuire’s prose is beautiful throughout; I started pulling out quotables around page one and never really stopped. It didn’t strike straight to my heart, but this is clearly a story where the author has something to say. I may not have had that soul-deep connection to it that I was looking for, but, again, I can see where others would.

I want to be clear on this: my saying I wasn’t as emotionally invested in this as I was expecting to be in no way does justice to how much I actually enjoyed this book. I was expecting a lot, going in.

And it’s also that my enjoyment of it had more to do with something else. Like I said, McGuire’s always interesting, and in a different way than I usually mean that. Usually I’m praising a unique environment or a plot element that I’ve never seen before, or maybe a different take on a stock character, when I say something is “interesting.”

Given, a lot of that is here. McGuire, though, seems to have an almost academic interest in dissecting and classifying stories. Indexing may have been using the pre-existing Aarne-Thompson-Uther index to do that, but here she’s created her own scale to classify the relatively modern genre of portal fantasy, a sliding X and Y axis between Virtue and Wickedness, and Logic and Nonsense, respectively. And the characters spend so much of the novel discussing their own worlds and where they fit in to that rubric that you almost find yourself doing it too, with your own favorite fantasy worlds.

The entire plot is, also, notably, the part of this story that no one ever tells. What happens when you come back from Oz and know it’s not a dream, but everyone is telling you it is? What happens when you step into the wardrobe again and find that now it’s just some musty old coats and a wooden back-board?

How do you deal when the place where you were hero and ruler and chosen one spits you out and you return home to be a powerless child? Only with all your memories and scars and trauma intact?

It takes the sort of person who thinks deeply about genre and genre conventions to write a story like this, the sort of person who takes joy in picking at what-ifs and loose threads. And McGuire certainly seems to have thought about this particular problem for years; my introduction to her was this song, which I first found almost a decade ago.

While I can’t say I’ve read her entire catalogue or anything, I think that unapologetically meta element may be a feature in a lot of McGuire’s books. It’s definitely part of what’s drawn me to the two I’ve read.

That ability to think of your narrative as a story first and foremost, to use all the variations on a type that you can think of to explore all the ways that a given genre could go, and to pick out the problems caused by the typical tropes is something I really appreciate. It speaks to me of expertise and broad understanding; McGuire knows the genres she’s writing in, loves the genres she’s writing in, and is willing to take them apart like Tinker Toys and reassemble them. It’s less uniqueness and more critical thinking, that makes McGuire’s books really interesting.

I liked this book so much because you could so easily take the structures it provides and apply them out to everything else. It’s the sort of novel that makes you think about genre as a whole. That was one of the things I appreciated about Indexing, too, and whoops, we’re back to “stories about stories.”

Basically, this book fed the part of me that likes that sort of classification, that likes to take apart the mechanics of a story. And even if I had been completely uninvested in any of these characters, I think that still might have made it worth it for me. When you add in about the amount of investment I would have for a novel I generally liked, well, you get the idea. Indexing made me want to pick up more of this author’s work, and I can only say Every Heart a Doorway has continued that trend.