Every Heart a Doorway
by Seanan McGuire
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765385505
Date: 05 April 2016 List Price $17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, part of Tor.com's series of publishing novellas as physical books and ebooks, is more like a short novel than a novella with more characterization and interesting backgrounds than many a full-sized novel.
The story opens with the arrival of Nancy, a new girl at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, a special school for children who have returned from a fantasy land. They are like Alice after Wonderland or Dorothy after Oz (although they dismiss Narnia as a Christian allegory). While Eleanor West tells parents that the fantasy worlds are delusions caused by the approach of womanhood, both West and her main therapist are returnees themselves and never try to persuade the children that their memories are false.
McGuire does an excellent job creating different fantasy worlds for her wayward children. There is an elaborate classification scheme for the Otherworlds based on type and the level of Nonsense versus Logic and Wicked versus Virtue. Nancy spent years in a Logical Underworld called the Halls of the Dead. Her roommate Sumi spent almost a decade in a high Nonsense Candyland. Kade, a beautiful boy, was originally a girl who went to a high Logic Virtuous Fairyland, but was kicked out when she discovered she was really a boy on the inside. The twins went to a dark high Logic, high Wicked world where one was raised by a vampire and the other by a mad scientist.
The author repeats the refrain that these wayward children are unfinished "a story, not an epilogue". Characters constantly tell Nancy how rare it is for a person to find another door and return to their other world. Sumi says "Once they throw you out, you can't go back" and that "Hope is bad. Hope means you keep on holding to things that won't ever be so again and so you bleed an inch at a time until there's nothing left." Similarly, the therapy sessions are designed to help the children adjust to this world and accept that this is where they will live.
The plot is less important than the writing and the imagery. About a third of the story is Nancy's introduction to the school and then the plot really begins when students are found murdered. Naturally, suspicion falls on Nancy as the new girl, especially since she came from the Halls of the Dead. It is up to Nancy and her new friends to find the real killer and save the school.
Unfortunately, I found the ending a little disappointing. The author hits the reader over the head with a moral and then, at least in my view, betrays the fundamental premise of her setup.
This novella shows how bloated too many novels have become. Every Heart a Doorway provides a novel's worth of characters, imagery, mystery, and adventure in just 174 pages. I'd recommend it for adult readers who like quirky and strange books that are hard to categorize. However, despite the age of the characters and the connections to children's stories like Alice in Wonderland I would not recommend this for readers under 15 due to dark images and frank discussion of sex.