This is a book that I was very keen to get hold of because so many people whose opinions I know and trust had been raving about how good it is. They were right.
Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway is part of the series of novellas that Tor has been putting out. (I understand that the project is primarily the work of Lee Harris, and I think he deserves a Hugo nomination for it.) Being a novella, it is a quick read, and as Seanan’s plots tend to be compulsive you’ll probably get through the book in a day. I know I did.
The thing that has impressed people most about the book is the basic concept. Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school that specializes in looking after children (mostly young girls) who have journeyed to magical realms but have, for whatever reason, been sent back to our world. Most of these girls are deeply traumatised, having lived full and interesting lives in worlds far more unusual than this one. They are desperate to get back. Their families, on the other hand, tend to assume that they have gone insane. Magical worlds don’t really exist, after all. So Miss West takes them in, and tries to help them re-adjust to mundane living, or to find their way back to their magical realms.
Our viewpoint character is Nancy. She has just come back from the Halls of the Dead. The Lord of the Dead said that she had to be sure that she wanted to stay. Nancy has no idea how to prove this to him. Her parents are convinced that she’ll grow out of her obsession with black if they give her enough frilly, rainbow dresses. Nancy needs Miss West very badly, but first she has to get used to the other students.
This is, after all, a school. Kids can be cruel, and many of the kids at Miss West’s are deeply disturbed. What’s worse is that someone is killing them. And Nancy, being a new kid who has an obsession with death, is a prime suspect.
Seanan, being Seanan, has made sure to include a diversity of sexual and gender identities. Nancy, being dead by inclination, is asexual. But the character who caught my eye is Kade. He’s a trans boy who, while still living as a girl, was taken to a magical fairyland called Prism. There he grew up to become the Goblin Prince, but Prism rejected him because he wasn’t a girl. (I’ll explain later why magical worlds much prefer to kidnap girls.) Back in our world, Kade has to do the whole Puberty-While-Trans thing again, and his parents reject his trans identity.
If you think about it, this is a horrendous situation to be in. And of course some of the kids at the school bully Kade as well. And yet he is one of the most well-balanced children at the school. I think he deserves a book of his own at some point. I’m seriously impressed with the kid.
When I first heard about this book I thought it was probably a meditation on the Susan Problem, that is, the question as to why Susan was barred from Narnia after discovering stockings and make-up. Having read it, I have decided that it is something much more sophisticated. Why children get lured into magical worlds, and whether or not they can stay in them, is a complex problem, and one that doesn’t really have room to be explored in a novella.
I’m reluctant to read too much into such a short book, but it seems to me that Seanan is suggesting that for some of the children (possibly including Nancy) the magical world is an escape from reality, perhaps because they will never fit in here. Possibly this is because some of the worlds are too alien for me to understand the way that the children who find them do. However, others such as Kade seem to have benefited significantly from their otherworldly journeying.
Other things Seanan does explain. I particularly liked the reason why most of the kidnapped children are girls. One of the staff at the school tells Nancy that this is because parents spend far more time worrying about boy children, whom they assume are liable to do something crazy at any minute. Girls are left to look after themselves, which makes it much easier for them to disappear.
Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.
Seanan did also briefly address the Susan Problem. Or rather she addressed the entire problem of Narnia. As one of the boys at the school explains, Narnia is a Christian allegory written by some old guy who has never been to a magical world and has no idea what one is like. The lad puts it rather less politely than that, as teenage boys are wont to do. That’s you told, Mr. Lewis.
Anyway, Every Heart a Doorway is a lovely book, and I warmly recommend it.
For more information about Seanan McGuire, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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