Every Heart a Doorway is a Young Adult novella written by Seanan McGuire. It’s about a school/sanatorium/half-way house for young children who’ve traveled to magical lands and now find themselves back in their old boring world, unable to deal with the doldrums of real life.
The premise of this book is right up my alley. I love everything that has to do with secret passageways to magical lands and this book is filled with that. Starting with the good, I absolutely loved all the different worlds McGuire came up with and I’m so happy that the other two books in this series – Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky – explore some of those further. They were inventive and magical and scary and made me feel like that one scene from A Nightmare before Christmas where Jack finds all the doors to the magical lands and I wanted to go through all of them. I honestly can’t even pick which one of them I thought was the most interesting and which one I would want to live in. I don’t even know yet if I would be a Nonsense or a Logical person, let alone pick any of the other directions!
McGuire certainly has a great imagination and I also really liked the characters she created. To me, the highlights were Sumi, Eleanor, and Jack, as they seemed the most tragic and real from all of them. But even Nancy – who’s a little bit of a wet blanket, to be honest – was interesting enough to be the focal point of the story. She perfectly embodies the want to go back, the painful knowledge of being certain that you don’t fit in and that this is not where you belong. All of these characters have undergone the same tragedy, but just like the different worlds that are mentioned in the book, they all deal with it in their own meaningful ways.
However, sometimes the book felt a little tone-deaf to me. It starts out all magical and fairytale-like, filled with riddling tales of worlds made of reason and rhyme. Then a sentence later, one of the characters asks if it’s ok to masturbate while the other is sleeping and then we’re off again to Nancy’s musing on the dead even though she’s staring at a corpse with no hands. These switches in tone pulled me out of the story, making me confused about the intended audience and the characters’ personalities. I couldn’t figure out if the book was trying to be more like The Magicians with an emphasis on realism and violence or like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland where everything is much more sweet with an undertone of real-world problems. I’m absolutely fine with either, but I’m not sure I enjoy reading both at the same time.
And even though I’m probably going to get some flack over this, I don’t like it when books are lauded just for being diverse, like diversity will immediately get you a star extra on a rating, even though it might not even fit in the story. A lot of the reviews on Goodreads list ‘diversity’ as one of the plusses for this book, even though they think the plot was boring and the murder mystery was way too obvious.
I mostly had this with Nancy being asexual, as I felt like it didn’t add much to her character or the story. Her sexual orientation didn’t change anything about her time in the Hall of the Dead and it didn’t really add anything to her character in the ‘real’ world either. This made me feel like Nancy could have easily had any other kind of sexual orientation, but this one was the easiest to prevent a love story from happening between her and Kade. Sexual orientation isn’t like picking an eye color, it changes how the world views you and how you view the world, which must have some impact on your personality.
Speaking about Kade, that definitely did feel like diversity done right. He was a much more interesting character because of it, as it formed his experience in the world he went to and why he couldn’t go back. Being transgender was an integral part of his character and created meaning for his story arc. While writing a character, I feel that the choices you make about their personalities, their wants and needs, have to be meaningful. They have to inform their decisions and their actions, because if they don’t, why even take the effort to describe them?
Before I’m getting a lot of hate-mail – and I kind of hate having to put up a disclaimer because I’m being critical – I’m all for diversity in art. I think representation is important and necessary, but all I’m trying to say here is that I feel that the representation of diverse characters deserve the best possible stories. Books don’t get bonus points for adding diverse characters. They simply get points for writing a good story around any kind of character. As a reader, I want to be mindful about the kind of characters I read about and I want to make an effort to read about all kinds of people, not just the ones who are like me. But I refuse to be satisfied with a lesser story, no matter the character I’m reading about.
The bad things don’t outweigh the positive things for me, but I do hope that in the next two books we get to explore the magical worlds more as well as the characters. McGuire does a lot in this novella, and setting up a story as well as a big cast of characters in a short amount of pages can be difficult and it doesn’t always work for me. Now that we know the characters, there might be some more room to dig deeper.