12 April 2016
Fantasy stories are full of children who find themselves in another world -- Narnia, Oz, Wonderland, Fairyland, and many other strange and magical places that the children explore before going back to our world.
But what happens to the children then?
That idea is at the heart of "Every Heart a Doorway," which introduces us to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, where children who speak of journeys to impossible places can be counseled and assisted as they struggle to deal with a world that no longer fits them. Seanan McGuire's writing is luminously unnerving, and she effortlessly whips together the fantastical struggles of her characters with a haunting murder mystery on the school grounds.
For the last six months -- or six years, if you ask her -- Nancy was in an Underworld of cold stars, pomegranate trees and shadowy gods. She longs to return to that strange, cold, ethereal world ruled by the Lord of Death and the Lady of Shadow. So her parents send her to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, which specializes in children who have gone to other worlds and come back -- both Logic and Nonsense worlds of various types, angled either towards Wicked or Virtue. Yes, the classification is very complex.
Nancy soon finds that the other kids there (and the teachers) are like her -- they have been altered by their time in these other worlds, and find themselves unable to live normal lives. All of them crave a return to the place where they now feel they belong, but only a few will ever return.
But Nancy's orientation is rudely interrupted when girls are suddenly murdered on the grounds, with each one missing an essential body part. People immediately start throwing accusations around at some of the more morbid children, including Nancy herself, and a panicked Eleanor even prepares to evacuate the school. As more deaths heap up on the Home, Nancy and her new oddball friends must uncover the murderer's identity, and stop them before they kill again.
Seanan McGuire has been writing excellent urban fantasy stories for many years, but "Every Heart A Doorway" is an almost transcendent story. Part of its charm the concept (a refuge for those who have travelled to other worlds), and the idea that those other worlds exist -- though only a few seconds of them are actually seen, McGuire spins a silken web of glimpses and hints that are all the more tantalizing because they are never actually shown in the story ("dancing skeletons that gleamed like opals"), only reflected in the children who have been there.
And her writing is absolutely enchanting, full of lingering magic that has followed the kids back to our world. The prose is often as disturbing as it is beautiful ("A girl with hair the color of moonlight on wheat stared at her hands while she talked about boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips..."), and McGuire comes up with some truly memorable moments (Christopher leads a dead girl's skeleton to her grave through his flute music). Some of the cruder comments can cause ripples in the luminous storytelling, but once the murders start, it seems to work better.
And all the characters are also oddballs, haunted by a hollow yearning for worlds where they fit in, because there is some part of them that needed to be there. Nancy is a prime example -- she is now a creature of stillness and shadow, unable to cope with sunlight or colorful clothes. She's also specified as being asexual early in the story, which is hinted to be a part of the reason why she fits into the Underworld of starlit beauty and unmoving ghosts more than she fits into the everyday world. She's awkward and ill-fitting at first, but grows more self-sufficient and strong as the story unwinds.
The other characters also don't quite fit in, even in a school full of kids who went down the rabbit hole -- hyperactive and brutally blunt Sumi, the prim mad-scientist-in-training Jack, quietly sensible Kade (who is transgender and reaching adulthood, and thus unable to return to a place that only wants little girls), and the meek bone-obsessed Christopher. They're even more poignant as you realize that the adults who run the place are basically the grown-up versions of these kids, and that outside the Home, they have no education, no home, no future.
"Every Heart a Doorway" is an astoundingly good novella that shows off Seanan Mcguire's writing talents at their best -- it's uplifting and bittersweet, enchanted and bloody. And even if only for a moment, it will open a door for you.