Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review - Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Short review: Nancy went to a twilight realm of the dead and found her home. Then she came back to our world and has to deal with being exiled from the only place that she ever fit in.

People who don't fit
Find other worlds where they do
Sometimes they come back.

Full review: The literary world is replete with stories about precocious or misunderstood children who stumble upon a gateway to another world and find themselves in a fantasy realm of wonder and mystery. Once there, these children have adventures in which they discover their true selves, learn life lessons, and become who they were meant to be. At the end of these stories, those children return home with their lives utterly changed, presumably for the better. Every Heart a Doorway proceeds to ask the next question: Then what happens?

Nancy is one such child. After a lifetime of not fitting in, she journeyed to a land of the dead filled with shades and pomegranate seeds in which she learned to be still like a statue at the behest of that cold and silent land's rulers. In this strange and cold world, Nancy finally felt like she belonged - like she had found her true home, but when she asked to stay forever, her Lord told her to return to Earth to be sure, and now she doesn't know the way back into the realm of the dead. Unable to understand their now somewhat creepy child, Nancy's parents send her to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in the hopes that she might be "fixed" and become normal like all the other children they know. But Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children is not dedicated to "fixing" the children who enter its doors, but is rather intended as a place of refuge and understanding that attempts to allow children who have returned from a journey to another world to cope with their loss. As is made clear in the story, the children who have made the trip through a door or other portal into a different world that is made up of cotton candy or skeletons or faerie nobility are lost when they finally return. Having gotten a taste of how it feels to be "home" in their new world, these children no longer fit into ours even to the uncomfortable extent that they ever did in the first place.

Fundamentally, Every Heart a Doorway is about misfits - the children in the book found their doorways to other worlds because they didn't quite fit into our own. It was only in these other worlds that these children felt truly loved and accepted, and now that they have returned to our world they find themselves once again in a place where they are the square peg for a round hole. In a sense, Eleanor West's institution attempts to provide a substitute home for these misfits, giving them a place of refuge and safety. In part, this is the purpose of the labels that are used for the various worlds that the children had returned from: Some children went to a "Nonsense" world, others to a "Logic" world, or to a world of "Wickedness" or "Virtue" or a world on some other part of the axis constructed to try to make sense of the mystical journeys they had returned from. By labeling these worlds and organizing them into a comprehensive structure, the instructors at Eleanor's Home for Wayward Children are showing their charges that they are not alone - that there are others who shared similar experiences, and that they can belong, even if it is little more than a pale reflection of the belonging they felt when they journeyed off to the world in which they fit perfectly.

In that vein, it seems that it is no accident that so many of the students at Eleanor's Home for Wayward Children are misfits in other ways than their shared otherworldly travels. The majority of the students are girls, and we are told that this is because girls can go unnoticed by those closest to them, whereas a boy who wandered would, in most cases, result in a search party being sent to recover him. Girls, it seems, simply don't really fit the society of our world. Further, several of the students are out of the ordinary in other ways: Nancy is asexual, Kade is transgender, other students are gay, and so on. The sexualities and gender identities of the students mark them as being "different" in our world, and the acceptance they generally find in Eleanor West's care is the counter for the rejection they experience elsewhere. These elements are, in some cases, even what got these students ejected from their otherworlds - Kade, for example, was tossed out of the fairyland he had found his place in when the inhabitants discovered that he was a transgender boy.

The real point, it seems, is that there is no safe place in the world, even if one does belong there. As Eleanor herself notes, many of the worlds the various children found their place in would be horrific nightmare realms for many others, and in some cases, even when a child fits into an otherworld, it is still a horrible place. Christopher went to a world of walking skeletons. Jack and Jill went to a world of gloomy moors where Jack apprenticed with a mad scientist and Jill served an inhuman monster. Other children went to worlds where they romanced insects, or cavorted with capricious fairies, or some other terrifying scenario. The point is that even though they belonged to these worlds, none of them were safe, not even the Nonsense worlds full of candy cane trees and cotton candy clouds.

After a fair amount of world-building, the story winds its way to the plot, which is an almost desultory murder mystery involving the students at the Home for Wayward Children. When one student turns up dead and mutilated, shock waves run through the school, and suspicion falls upon those students who went to some of the less than cheerful worlds, including the newcomer Nancy. When a second student turns up dead and also mutilated, the paranoia goes through the roof. On the one hand, these murders reinforce the notion that there are no safe places, but on the other, the resolution of the mystery feels so perfunctory that it lacks any real emotional punch. After the brilliance of the world-building and the interesting characters who populate it, the murder mystery plot is somewhat disappointing.

Aside from the minor misstep of the murder mystery, Every Heart a Doorway is a stunning and evocative story. Set in a world in which the exiles from the other, in some ways better, worlds find themselves, the story paints a starkly beautiful picture, and gives the reader a glimpse into the mind of people who never thought they would fit in who found their perfect place, and now must face the harsh reality that the sense of belonging that they discovered is now gone, and may not ever return. The story even includes an almost gratuitous but ultimately pitch-perfect swipe at C.S. Lewis that sets the tone in a splendid manner. This story is a love-letter to everyone who ever felt left out, who ever felt like this wasn't the right world for them to be living in, or who ever yearned to be allowed to be their authentic self, but it should be read by everyone.

2016 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novella: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
2017 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novella: TBD

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novella

2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Nebula Award Nominees

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