Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children series)
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC., 2016
176 pages. Available in hardcover, Kindle, and Audible audio formats.
Category: Fiction, Portal Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
I came across this book while checking to see whether my local library had the latest Toby Daye novel. Our small and famously underfunded system did not. However, they did have this single book by prolific writer and author of the Toby Daye series, Seanan McGuire. I was curious about the book and was met with several stellar reviews, so I decided to check it out.
I started to notice this when I picked it the book from the library. I actually went to Amazon and to McGuire’s website because I thought surely such a small book was a children’s or maybe even YA book. I didn’t mind if it was. I just like to know what I’m getting into. Despite its size, it is categorized on the author’s page as portal/urban fantasy with no notes on it being intended for children of any sort. Used to Robert Jordan’s epic and sizable yarns, I was a little surprised to see Tor publishing anything that it categorized as fantasy that was so small that I could stick it in my purse and still have room to spare. I could go into a whole diatribe over how writers worry about making their books just the right length to fit certain genres and audiences, but I find myself glad when expectations are booted in favor of just allowing writers to tell a good story. So, onward we go!
The premise of the book is based on a home for “wayward” children led by another former wayward child herself, Eleanor “Ely” West. It opens with a young woman by the name of Nancy coming to the home for the first time. She is met by a sign:
ELEANOR WEST’S HOME FOR WAYWARD CHILDREN: No Solicitation, No Visitors, No Quests.”
The children (teens really) that occupy Ely West’s boarding school are of a special sort. Each has been through a magical door and back again at least once. When they return to their place of origin after adventures beyond the doorway—to worlds classified here with categories like high Logic and high Nonsense—they can no longer cope with this world because each saw the place that they had visited as Home. (There is a completely different school for children who were terrified by their adventures and are just trying to forget.) The parents of these homesick teens think they are lying or crazy and send them off to be cured, while the children themselves are just looking for a way back through their doors.
Nancy’s parents, tired of her drab clothing and her refusal to eat, send her to Ely with hope for a cure. Nancy, however, knows that she was sent back through her doorway “just to be sure” that her world, the Halls of the Dead, is where she really wants to be. She continues to behave in a manner appropriate to someone of that world with hopes that if she doesn’t get caught up in the harried pace of this world, she will be allowed to go back.
At the school, Nancy, still accustomed to the ways of the Underworld, finds a menagerie of teens who have been to a vast array of worlds, from her new roommate, the highly energetic Sumi, who has been to a world of cakes and candy floss, to Jack and Jill, a set of teen girls who have been to the Moors, where Jill served a Master Vampire and Jack was apprenticed to a man reminiscent of Doctor Frankenstein.
As a reader, at this point, I expected to follow along to find out whether Nancy finds her way back to her beloved Lord of the Dead or instead finds a way to cope with the frantic and overly colorful world into which she has been born. This is definitely an aim of the story, but it is quickly matched by another worry when students start being murdered violently. Thus, this portal fantasy is a bit of a murder mystery as well.
I will leave the rest of the plotline to avoid spoilers and get into the meat of things that I was pleased with and those I was not so pleased with (in reverse order).
As an editor and a perpetual student of story, one thing that bothered me about the book was the way point of view (POV) was handled. At first, the story seems to shift from one third-person limited POV to another, Nancy’s to Ely’s. This was easy enough to follow, and it kept me as a reader engaged with the stakes of each character. I admit, I was looking for a tether to hold onto to guide me along the events of the story, even if it was from an unreliable narrator. However, later, as tensions rise, McGuire dips in and out of the heads of different characters in a more omniscient fashion. This took me out of the story as I tried to find my anchor, my point of consistency. I wish I could have told her, as I’ve told many an author, that she had chosen a POV and stuck to it. An omniscient POV needs to be balanced throughout the book, while a third-person limited POV needs to shift characters only at designated scene or chapter breaks. Otherwise, the shifts and head hopping cause confusion and pull the reader out of the story. I started to wonder for a while whether there was a main character after all.
Not all readers might find my second note of criticism applicable, but I found myself sympathizing much more with one of the side characters than with I did with Nancy. I won’t tell you which one, since it is possible to do this with more than one of the secondary characters. The author might have intended this, to make the reader wonder who done it? Could it have been our narrator, Nancy? She is, after all, beholden to the Lord of the Dead, and she is the first suspect that many of the students look to. However, I felt distanced from Nancy and liked this secondary character enough that I began to wonder who the story was really about.
On a positive note, McGuire deals with this small variety of teens and their differences with a deft hand. The story feels real and engaging. She doesn’t shy away from issues such as gender preference or even asexuality, a topic left out so often in literature that it may as well not exist for a vast majority of readers. Without making the whole story about these issues, she presents it in a genuine light, with some students accepting the differences without batting an eyelash and some using them as points of attack. She covers a lot in such a small book without overshadowing the story or being preachy.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, a nice step out of my own little world of reading books about wizards, vampires, and fae changelings and into a world of teens struggling to find a place where they belong. Yes, there is a lot of metaphor here, but there is a good story as well.