Review: Every Heart a Doorway

This turned out to be less spoilery than I had expected, but if you don’t want to know Certain Important Things ahead of time, go read Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire first. If you need a bit of a push to decide whether or not to read it (do it, do it), here is a very short, 100% accurate list of reasons to do so.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s Year of the Griffin, the human wizard-geneticist Derk gives advice and a list of recommended books to his griffin daughter, Elda, and to her friends, who are students at Wizards’ University and increasingly disillusioned by the poor quality of the instruction they are given and the limited, narrow-minded attitudes of their teachers. One morning Elda begins reading the recommended Policant’s Philosophy of Magic.

Policant had a way of putting together two ideas which ought not to have had anything to do with one another, and then giving them a slight twist so that they did after all go together — rather like Derk himself had done to eagle and lion to make griffin, Elda thought. To her mind, the way Policant did it was a bit forced. But Policant kept asking questions. They were all questions that made Elda say to herself, ‘I wouldn’t ask this like that!’ or, ‘That’s not the right question — he should be asking this!’ Before long she was wondering if Policant might be asking the wrong questions on purpose, to make you notice the right ones. After that, she was hooked. It dawned on her that she had chosen the most exciting subject in the world to study, and she read and read and read. In the end she was almost late for breakfast because she just had to finish Section Five. (p. 42)

Every Heart a Doorway is the sort of book that keeps you ever so slightly off balance the whole way through. You will think you’ve got the hang of it, you will think you’ve seen it all; you are wrong. It reminds me of Elda and Policant because I didn’t like everything in the novel; some of the choices and situations made me vaguely unhappy , a reaction contrary to those of the characters. I liked the story and the people in it, but the things that I didn’t like dogged my thoughts until I had to work through why they bothered me. In short, Every Heart a Doorway made me examine my perspective – my biases, my expectations, what I looked for and expected in stories, and what I considered right and proper.

Which is a pretty tall order for a slender volume of 169 pages, in which a group of children who have lived in other worlds are pushed back through a doorway into this one — and are unable to get back. This is their personal apocalypse, to adjust to a world that is not their home, and accept that their doorway is not coming back — or to hope, and try to return to the other world, the one they belong in. Murder comes as another apocalypse: if the school closes, all hope of returning is lost.

One of the remarkable themes in this story is the emphasis that loving does not always translate to knowing what is best for a person; it doesn’t even mean knowing the person, not really. Throughout the story, different children (teens) who have come back from marvelous adventures in other realms – realms where they really and truly belong – acknowledge that their parents love them but cannot help hurting them. Their parents love them but do not understand them, and do not listen. Their parents are so caught up in their own preconceived ideas that their best-intentioned efforts only ruin the happiness and frustrate the welfare of their children, who are not, in many ways, children any longer.

Some of the story will hurt your heart.

The children are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same. Some went to High Nonsense worlds, others to High Logic. Some worlds are Virtuous, others Wicked – and those are only the cardinal directions; there are also rhyme and linearity, vitus and mortis. The children who belong in such different homes are different on the inside, as well. Sumi grew up overlooked, still, and silent; she went to a High Nonsense world where constant motion meant safety. Nancy, who grew up dressed in rainbowy colours, belonged in a world of shadows and stillness, of pomegranate juice and the dead. Nancy learned to hold herself as still as a statue, her heartbeat slowed to one beat a minute, breath unnecessary.

Her parents loved her, there was no question of that, but their love was the sort that filled her suitcase with colors and kept trying to set her up on dates with local boys. Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken. (p. 83)

There is ruthlessness at the core of this story. It resists softened edges, the cuddliness fandom imposes on its favourites, insisting instead on utter and beautiful and sometimes painful honesty. An authority figure mistrusts Nancy, our protagonist, because the authority figure “thinks in stories,” and according to most stories, Nancy can only be a villain. Every Heart a Doorway repeatedly throws readers for a loop by questioning the stories they follow unthinkingly.

I should maybe mention that Nancy is asexual (and not aromantic); that her first friend at school, the popular whirlwind Sumi, is of Japanese descent*; that Kade, the most gorgeous boy in school, is trans; that the sensible, kind Christopher is Latino, and that the school’s genius mad scientist (with requisite morbid outlook and no social skills) is Jack, short for Jacqueline. Oh, and ***SPOILER*** the murderer is an entitled white woman. (Murderers? Technically?)

*Throws confetti for some lovely representation*

That said, there were a few things that made me frown. Sumi, the sole explicit** WOC, is the first to die. Nancy eats very little – life in her realm requires very little sustenance – and her defense of her dietary choices could easily be co-opted by anyone with an eating disorder.

On the plus side, Christopher shuts down a transphobic classmate with utter perfection. You might find yourself underlining his words. (Don’t do this with a library copy.) The difference between most of the characters, who are willing to do ruthless things that are necessary for their happiness, and the murderer, who is willing (even eager) to do evil things to reach the same goal, is cast into sharp relief:

“Why is your happy-ever-after the only one that matters?” (p. 163)

This is a story filled with longing, with displaced and exiled children, and with hope. It is a paean to those for whom family is not home and who cannot return to their true home, and to those don’t settle for what they can get.

Read it, and come argue with me about the ending. I look forward to it.

* I can’t say Japanese-American, because the setting isn’t more specific than North America, and Anglophone. The school could be in Canada, although that is unlikely because the author is American.

** Ethnicity isn’t stated for most background characters, for whom physical descriptions are likewise limited, almost entirely absent.