Every Heart a Doorway
by Seanan McGuire
Tor Books, 2016
Every Heart a Doorway is a book that spans genres. It’s part YA, part horror, part old-timey Portal fantasy, and part magical boarding school fantasy, with a dollop of LGBTQ. It’s disturbing, in ways both unintentional and obvious. It won a Nebula award, yet could have been a lot better.
The book has a hell of a concept. Portals into other worlds – described along an axis of Logic and Nonsense, and another of Virtue and Vice, actually exist, and manage to suck in the children who explore. Some have good experiences, some bad. When the Portal spits them out again months or years later, they’re older and changed psychologically. Their parents and loved ones, not believing their stories of fantasy worlds, pack them off to a special boarding school to “cure” them. But Eleanor West, the school’s owner, does the opposite… she also went through a Portal in her youth, and so helps them come to terms with it rather than denying it.
The story starts off being about Nancy, a teenage girl who spent a few years in The Land of the Dead and her struggles with adjusting to her present life in the real world, but it’s really about the concept of Portals and the odd worlds they lead to, and how they affect the kids who spend time in them. In the second half of the book there’s a murder mystery shoved in with some gruesomeness that doesn’t quite fit the beginning tone of the story, and acts as a spoiler to and repudiation of that first part of the novel (novella, rather, it was quite short) which was meditative and magical. Nancy helps solve the crime, and in the end, finding a secret message from one of the murdered victims, gets to go back to the fantasy land she loved so much. The End.
I was more than a little nonplussed by the book, and am still mulling it over. On the whole, though, I was frustrated by the directions it took. For example, the Portal worlds read more like video game scenarios than spoofs of literary fantasy worlds (Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, etc.) that the author seemed to be setting the reader up for. For example, there’s a Candyland world that recalls the fictional video game Sugar Rush from the Pixar movie Wreck-it Ralph, and a high Gothic one that recalls not Emily Bronte or Mary Shelley, but the Ravenloft universe from Dungeons and Dragons. There did seem to be a lack of variety in that all came across on variations of Faerielands or Looking-Glass world, rather than the familiar universes of, say, Talking Animal world (Native American myths, Pooh, Dr. Doolittle), Arabian Nights world, Celtic England world, and on and on. Worlds from the books the kids in the story might have read. I could see these worlds functioning as archetypes, along the lines of the different theme parks in the Westworld TV series and movies, for example.
In the story they did, sort of, but the effect was off-putting. Most of the worlds came across as dull or dangerous. Only one character had grand adventures of the type the Narnia kids had. The others were damaged, or exploited. One character, Sumi, emerged as a near-schizophrenic speaking word salad, giggling and hiding in trees. Twin sisters in the high Gothic world were forced to serve a mad scientist and a vampire. Yet, in McGuire’s depiction, the kids LOVE it, so much they want to return, which is why they’re at the school being consoled by Eleanor. The more I think about it, and I’ve been mulling over this book for a few weeks now, the story is horror at its heart. Yet it pretends not to be.
The main character, Nancy, served as a living statue in the vaguely Grecian Land of Dead, which meant she stood still a very long time observing a lot of nothing (because the dead aren’t exactly full of energy) which would be frankly hellish for most people, yet she enjoyed it. Many times it was mentioned how she detests the “hot, busy” world, yet it was never convincingly explained why or how she vegged out 24/7 with no outside stimulation.
And, troublingly I think, some of the kids’ kinks for these worlds are linked to their real-world psychologies. Nancy asserts she is asexual (a lack of sexual attraction toward any gender) and the book hints their psychologies choose for them, or perhaps manifest, a Portal to a world where they can live them out – Nancy as asexual has a lack of engagement and passion, so she goes to a Land of the Dead where she can literally erase herself. Kade, another character, is a transgender boy, so he goes to a world of fairies to have boyish adventures, only to be kicked out when his birth gender is discovered. The twin sisters are vaguely sociopathic, so one becomes a mad scientist in Gothic world, the other a vampire’s foster daughter. This raises some questions the author may not have intended, as in, are these young people better off in their own worlds, or is it better for them to be integrated into society? Are their kinks eccentricities, or pathologies?
I have to say the story works as an examination of these issues, but it fails as a story. The characters were unpleasant, self-centered and stereotypical, and the murder mystery was distracting and awkward. Plus, the story started in a way that I hate. There’s probably a name for the trope: Main character arrives in a new place and stands there all confused, then another character waltzes in who spouts a lot of nonsense at them, making them even more confused, and also the reader, and even though what the insane character says actually makes sense, that’s apparent only in hindsight when the reader gets deeper into the book. It’s a very hard trope to write well, and 99% of writers don’t. The trick is to make the insane character amusing enough for the reader to tolerate them, which Lewis Carroll pulled off in Alice in Wonderland… but that was also because of the humor, puns, and Victorian caricatures. The schizophrenic character of Sumi was just irritating and my annoyance level jumped every time she came back into the story. In hindsight, I found her damaged and pathetic, but the story didn’t think so. It treated her as heroic in her madness.
Other tropes seemed imported wholesale from YA fiction, and popular fiction in general… showing the brainy, competent character in a room full of books, and the mad scientist character dressing like one in tweeds and bow tie. Really.
And, actually, there are stories that play with the concept of Portal worlds better. One of these is The Cave in Deerfield, by an author known as Cofax, which is Narnia fanfic and available through the Archive of Our Own fanfic site. This asks the question, were the Pevensie kids the first ones to travel through a Portal to Narnia, or only the ones who were successful in their mission? Now, you have to have read C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series to get this, or at least The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I think most fantasy readers have, so I’ll include it in this link.
If Narnia was in public domain the way Oz is, The Cave in Deerfield should have won a Nebula.
Another is Ursula K. LeGuin’s beautiful short story The Pathways of Desire. A group of explorer/anthropologists travel to a planet that is superficially like a Polynesian island with beautiful native girls and brave warriors, only to discover it’s really the invented fantasy world of a high school boy. “But what happens if he wakes up and stops believing in it?” one character asks. The other responds, “Only once in a million million years does a soul wake up” implying that most young people prefer their fantasies to their realities, which is more of a heartbreaking point than anything Every Heart a Doorway came up with. It’s not one of the LeGuin’s most cited short stories, but I’d like to see it get mentioned more than it does, because of what it says to SFF readers and writers both.
In sum, Every Heart a Doorway could have been a creepy horror story, but failed. I didn’t get the meta-commentary on Portal worlds I expected to find, either, and what details there were served as background for the start of a longer book series that doesn’t sound as interesting as the initial concept is.