There is no singularly unique element to Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. The notion of what happens to the children caught up in the fantasy adventure of children’s literature after they come home has been looked at before, for example by Neil Gaiman and by Alan Garner (also less successfully by John C Wright). The idea of a boarding school for extraordinary teenagers is an even more well worn path. What McGuire does well here is to understand what she is tapping into and celebrate it rather than critique it. The net result is a children’s story for adults where a plucky group of misfit friends solve the mystery and save the day but with some added reflections on identity and oddness.
The basic premise is this: portals (doorways) to fantastic realms are more commonplace than we realise and sometimes children (predominantly girls) step into such doorways, spend time in another world, only to return later to find themselves unable to fit back into their former lives.
Eleanor West runs a school for such children – specifically those children who returned to the real world unwillingly and who still hope to re-find their doorway. The story is centred on one such child, Nancy, who has recently returned from the (surprisingly benign) land of the dead where she was a servant to Death. The school is populated with children from worlds both Enid Blytonish and Tim Burtonesque and Nancy falls in with some of the more strange children.
…then the murders begin.
I’ve seen the story called both ‘message fiction’ and ‘box ticking’. That first claim is nonsense – the story has messages as all stories do but they are ones that arise from the very conventions McGuire is looking at (friendship, not making superficial judgements about people, the nature of courage etc, etc). ‘Box ticking’ at least has some grounding in actual elements of the story: the teens we meet are diverse in multiple ways including aspects of sexuality and gender identification which would not traditionally appear in the root material of the story. However, this is just from the book having a modern setting – the basic element of having the group of friends varied along multiple aspects rather than just their ‘powers’ (or here the fantasy land they are from) is another trope from the extraordinary boarding school style of story.
The story fits the novella format well. The story is complete and resolves itself well, if unsurprisingly. The premise of the multiple doorways is given enough grounding to answer some basic questions. I liked, in particular that McGuire characterises Faerie as world of High Logic appearing to be High Nonsense and her hints at ‘directions’ for all sorts of worlds gave a nice sense of a deeper background to the story without becoming bogged down in a complex scheme.
A nice read. Less ambitious and original than This Census Taker and A Taste of Honey but more complete and succesful.