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Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire2.5 stars
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[Spoilers in final two paragraphs.]

Fantasy has long been a genre for those of us who feel like we don’t fit in. And portal fantasies in particular are the kinds of stories that directly target that feeling among life’s misfits that perhaps we don’t really belong, and we’d be so much happier if we could open a wardrobe or find a secret path through the woods that will lead us to a special realm of wonder, romance, adventure, and happily-ever-afters.

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novellas offer revisionist portal fantasies where ever-afters may not always be so happy, and mystical otherworlds may not be any more accepting of those who travel there than the mundane and unhappy lives they’ve tried to escape. It’s a rich premise that promises a potentially endless stream of story ideas. Yet despite having her heart indisputably in the right place, McGuire’s newest series is wildly uneven in its storytelling. The first volume, Every Heart a Doorway, has its charms, but struggles to maintain a consistent tone, waffling between whimsy, pathos, and shocks as McGuire establishes the rules of her world.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school very much in the Tim Burton Gothic vein, whose young charges — mostly girls — have all returned to our world after spending months or even years of subjective time in one fairyland or another. Each of these fantasy realms seems uniquely suited to the person who travels there, through a door only they can see or use. And once there, these young travelers are convinced their realm is the first and only place they’ve ever felt truly at home. But these realms have thrown them back out, where they find themselves facing a “real life” they cannot readjust to, with family members who can’t relate to them any more. All of these kids desperately want to find their doorways again and go back. But the cold hard truth is that the odds are vanishingly small.

Our viewpoint character is Nancy Whitman, a girl who has just been brought to the school by her perplexed parents after returning from the Halls of the Dead, all gothed out with black and white streaked hair and a lingering talent for going as perfectly still as a statue for hours on end. Nancy meets a number of her fellow students, and the standard friendships and rivalries are established. In these scenes, McGuire’s tale really shines. A direct reference reveals that McGuire is writing a rebuttal to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia here, by imagining her fairylands as places that understand growing up is a time of finding yourself before you settle in to making life’s permanent decisions. With some of her characters, like Nancy, who’s asexual, and Kade, a charismatic trans boy, McGuire writes with boundless affection and sensitivity to any readers whose identity might place them among society’s misunderstood.

But any expectation we might have had that Every Heart a Doorway would be a gentle, character-driven tale in which friendships and love and lasting emotional bonds are forged among marginalized refugees from the mundane, whose only family is each other, are quickly sidelined. McGuire has to introduce an all-too-conventional plot contrivance — a serial killer is loose in the school! As a mystery, it generates no real suspense, no tension or fear. The killer’s identity is not much of a surprise, though an understanding of motivations becomes clearer once you've read the sequel and are able to fit events into a broader narrative context. It could be argued that this will be a series best read after a few volumes are out, and can be binged.

Eleanor is desperate to conceal evidence of the crimes so the school won’t be closed altogether, and so Nancy, Kade, and some other classmates team up to solve the killings. Now, instead of giving us a chance to identify with the students on a deeper level, the story transforms them into a kind of Scooby Doo Gang, each one using whatever special skill or power they learned in their respective fairyland to gather clues. This in turn leads to one bizarre scene in which everyone is way too glib about dissolving the corpse of one of their classmates in a bathtub full of acid, so that a boy named Christopher can interview her skeleton. It’s the kind of scene that would work great in either full-blown horror or broad, comic farce. But it’s just weird in a story whose author seems to want more than anything to tug readers’ heartstrings the way the most emotional moments of, say, the Harry Potter series did.

Also — and here comes the part where a spoiler is unavoidable — when Nancy is finally allowed to return to the Halls of the Dead in the denouement, I couldn’t feel the emotional catharsis McGuire intended. It’s true, we’re told all through the story that all of the students have an overriding desire to find their doorways again and go back. But they still have a choice. And because the story only exposes us to Nancy’s life at the school and gives us no actual scenes of her time among the Dead (in fact, what little we’re told of that realm makes it sound pretty ominous and oppressive), then the only investment we have as readers is in the school and the friendships Nancy has forged there, particularly with Kade, for whom Nancy seems to be developing a kind of sweet and chaste first love.

So basically, it all ends without giving us any reason to root for Nancy to find her doorway and leave, and every reason for us to root for her to stay and make her home with Eleanor and Kade at the school, among the other lost children. But no. She simply goes back, with no indication that she’ll miss anyone, or that any of her experiences at the school had any kind of meaningful impact on her at all. It may be the case that once a future volume has been released, telling Nancy’s story at last, many of my misgivings about the ending of Every Heart a Doorway will be wafted away. So if you’re still unsure whether this will be a saga for you, I can only suggest, don’t shut the door on it just yet.

Followed by Down Among the Sticks and Bones.