Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Let’s make one thing clear: Every Heart a Doorway has an absolutely fabulous premise. Its central idea – a boarding school/rehab clinic for children who have returned from Narnia-style excursions to other worlds – is one of the best concepts in recent memory. It’s also perfect for the ‘Young Adult’ demographic the novella is pitched at. Tales of adolescent angst are much improved by unicorns, mad scientists and the occasional vampire, and McGuire makes her characters feel like real teenagers as well as exiles from otherworldly dimensions. But while the setting and characters are intriguing and well-observed, the novella’s mechanics leave a bit to be desired. Pacing and structural problems abound, and while the book’s light touch and short length make it inoffensive, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wasted potential. Every Heart a Doorway is ultimately a better premise than it is a book.

The novella opens with the arrival of main character Nancy, fresh from an extended jaunt in the Halls of the Dead. We follow her as she is introduced to the school and her fellow pupils, all outcasts from various magical realms, alienated from the real world. The early chapters outline the characters’ sense of not belonging in touching and subtle ways, like the moment where Nancy realises her parents have packed bright clothes for her instead of the dark ones she is used to: “How could she wear any of these things? Those were daylight colours, meant for people who moved in the sun, who were hot, and fast, and unwelcome in the Halls of the Dead”. The book shines in these quiet moments of dejection, as well as those where the differing nature of each kid’s fantasy world affects their interactions. Some have returned from Carrollesque nonsense worlds, others from lands more akin to the Hammer Horror films, and those differences lead to tensions between pupils. The decision to effectively organise high school cliques along genre lines is inspired.

Nancy herself is an interesting heroine, more inclined to observe than actively interfere, which makes her the perfect point of view character to establish a fairly complex setting. This is very much a novella in the post-Gaiman tradition of tell-don’t-show metafictional commentary. This can be terribly effective, such as when Nancy’s teacher explains why more girls go missing than boys: “We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women”. But too often it feels like McGuire is simply delivering characterisation via overlong info-dumps, like the moment Nancy reflects on her asexuality: “She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realising that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in”. McGuire too often dwells on superfluous details, using two dozen words where one would do.

That sense of sloppiness is matched elsewhere in the book. After a leisurely-paced opening the second half is preoccupied by a murder mystery, but the pace remains too slow to be effective, with characters simply dawdling around having un-tense conversations while the body count steadily grows. The culprit is obvious from the get-go, and at one point the book’s cleverest character is required to act like an idiot so as not to solve things too early. Even worse, after all that faffing about the plot climaxes in the most abrupt and hackneyed way possible, with a confrontation in the school attic and an honest-to-God damsel in distress. It gets at a larger problem with the book; having established an ingenious premise allowing for all sorts of interesting commentary, McGuire instead opts to put her characters through the most bog-standard plot imaginable.

Every Heart a Doorway is not a bad book. Its short length minimises its pacing problems, and the characters are likeable and well-rounded enough to keep you interested. But given the nature of its premise, it’s a surprisingly unambitious one. The muddled and unsatisfying nature of the central mystery is ultimately less frustrating than the decision to have a central mystery at all. It displays a disappointing lack of faith in what should have been a world-beating concept. McGuire begins by breaking every rule in the book, but she ends by conforming to every single one.

Every Heart a Doorway is published by tor.com and is available to buy in hardback and ebook format, RRP £12/£7.59.

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