Book review: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

19 11 2017

Seanan McGuire is a prolific US speculative fiction writer who’s achieved considerable prominence in the subgenres of urban fantasy, YA, and horror. She is the first author ever to have received five Hugo nominations in the one year (2013); two of those were under the pen name Mira Grant which she has used for her ‘Newsflesh’ thriller / zombie series. She has won numerous awards including the John W Campbell, the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Pegasus, and has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award.

EveryHeartADoorway

Every Heart A Doorway is the first volume in McGuire’s ‘Wayward Children’ novella series, and centres on events unfolding at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the wake of seventeen-year-old Nancy’s arrival. It reads like a Twin Peaks / YA mashup of Hogwarts, Roke Island, and the Narnia magic portal idea: the Home’s (predominantly female) teenage charges are all veterans of accidental Otherland travel, having previously found portals into a spectrum of magically chaotic or highly ritualistic realms from which they’ve subsequently been expelled, estranged, or otherwise dispatched, and they are often desperate to find a way back to their particular adoptive homelands. In many cases, the hidden doors to such wonderlands remain irrevocably closed, but Miss Eleanor’s boarding school is a much more palatable ‘halfway house’ for them than their own misunderstanding families.

Nancy has been sent back from the Halls of the Dead, where she acquired the skills of silence and stillness, and a taste for pomegranates and black-and-white attire. In a school full of those who don’t fit neatly into society—think of a school populated entirely by Moomin characters in teenage human form, and you’ll get some idea—Nancy is instantly an introverted outlier, but she’s thrown together with exuberant roommate Sumi, chalk-and-cheese twin sisters Jack and Jill, and boy-whose-parents-desperately-wanted-a-girl Kade, and slowly starts accommodating herself to the particularities of Miss Eleanor’s tutelage.

The characterisation in Every Heart is impressively vivid and individualistic, and Nancy is a very sympathetic protagonist despite her aloofness and death-obsession. Although she is the novella’s clear mainstay, there’s ample depth and shade provided to ensure that those around her, too, are very clearly drawn … which adds to the impact once the gruesome deaths commence. The murderer can realistically only be one of their number, but which of them has any motive for the death and dismemberment visited upon the victims? Suspicion naturally falls on morbid new girl Nancy and those closest to her: she knows she didn’t do these things, but will anybody believe her?

The worldbuilding is also very engaging. Miss Eleanor classifies realms along axes of Nonsense and Logic; Virtue and Wickedness; Rhyme, Whimsy, and whatnot, and though this cartography is never explicitly depicted anywhere, it makes perfect taxonomic sense within the novella’s construction. The undeniable strength of the story, though, is in the sympathetic depiction of the highly variegated cast of students, many of whom achieve memorability within the book’s comparatively compact frame.

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