Review: Every Heart a Doorway - Seanan McGuire
Genre: (YA) fantasy Published: Tor Publishing, April 2016 My Rating: 2/5 stars
"She was a story, not an epilogue"
One of the worst cases of conflicted emotions I’ve had in a long time.. This was a novel of extremes for me: on one page I was loving it, yet the next I was actively disliking and resenting it, which doesn’t happen to me that often and is a clear sign something isn’t right. Mandatory disclaimer: this is going to be a long one as I have many thoughts. Also, as this is a very beloved book and my opinion is going to be an unpopular one: my opinions are just opinions. I’m very happy that many people have found so much good in this novel, but I unfortunately had a different experience with it.
Every Heart a Doorway is set in Mrs Eleanor West’s home for Wayward Children, a boarding school for teenagers who have traveled through portals to magical lands. Each of them, for one reason or another, had to return to reality, and now struggles to fit in again. In their own fantasy-worlds they could be their true selves, but Reality unfortunately isn’t so forgiving towards people that are “different”. The plot follows Nancy, the newest arrival at the Mrs West’s Home for Wayward Children, on a twofold quest: get to the bottom of the violent tragedies that are taking place between their walls, and (perhaps) more importantly: find her way home.
The Good I have to start off on a high note: the premise and worldbuilding of are quite brilliant. Many of us, including myself, will experience a feeling of being “different” at some point in their lives. Of feeling lonely and out of place… Of being homesick for a place you can’t return to. Every Heart a Doorway does, at times, a brilliant job of putting that feeling into words. Those moments of melancholy and longing for your own world (childhood) are where this novella shines and had the potential of being a new favorite for me. I also loved the world that’s being created: the different worlds that each child has traveled to, to fit their needs. The distinctions between high-logic, high-whimsy, wicked, etc. and the way some portals opened once and never again felt original, yet very intuitive. Honestly, I would have read 170 pages just about the two points mentioned above, and would have likely given it 5 stars. Unfortunately, it isn’t 170 pages of this.
The Bad About half way through, the secondary “mystery” storyline is introduced, and the novella went downhill from there. You know that feeling of: “oh-shit-there’s-so-much-mystery-to-solve-but-only-50-pages-left”...? yeah… That’s what I felt from this point on. 170 pages ultimately was too short to wrap up both of these storylines in a satisfying way, leading to a very rushed and exposition-heavy conclusion. Expositional writing in general runs ramped throughout: characters are constantly explaining everything to each other and the reader, including explaining things to each other that both parties should already know, which lead to stiff and unrealistic feeling conversations. In the end I almost wished McGuire had left the mystery storyline out entirely, and had focused the pagetime on the characters and their respective worlds.
The Ugly Speaking of the characters: this is where my true problem with this novella lies. Every Heart a Doorway has been praised into oblivion for it’s diverse cast and great representation of minorities, so my expectations were pretty high. I like to see different types of people represented in my fiction as much as anyone else, but this to me was the perfect example of everything that can go wrong following the modern cry for more diversity in writing. The cast of this book can be best described as: every single token-[insert minority of your choice here] character, written in the most clichéd and flat way possible, combined. This extends to both their characters, as well as their worlds and honestly does more to further some prejudices than it does to counter them. Some examples:
- Our main character Nancy is asexual. She is also pretty much just dead inside, and her world reflects this by being a lifeless underworld filled with dead, cold statues of people, lacking any joy or bounce. To present a sexuality that is plagued by a false prejudice of being frigid and “dead inside” in this way is just about the worst thing you can do. - Sumi is the only Asian character in the book. Guess what: she’s a cute and quirky (literal) manic-pixie-dream-girl, with her only character-trait being “quirk”. - Final nail in the coffin: there’s a latino/Mexican character who goes to a world of… Dia de Los Muertos. Dancing colorful skeletons and all… I wish I was making this up…
To add insult to injury: all characters make a point of stating the exact way in which they are different by rattling off the exact definition of their sexualities/identities etc., as if they were giving an educational speech. Never have I ever had a conversation about sexuality that went like this. Diversity is not about pigeon-holing people into boxes for you to check in: people are more than sexualities/nationalities/etc. I want to see people leading diverse lives in fiction, as people do in real life(!!), not having to settle for a blank slate with a label printed on them. I can’t believe it’s 2019 and we’re still having this issue!
This review got more ranty than I was expecting, yet I really wanted to put my thoughts onto paper. Please, again: these are just my opinions. I feel very strongly about the topic of diversity in fiction and I really, really want to see it done right. Find this book on Goodreads