Wayward Children, Book 1; published in 2016; 173 pages. ★★★☆☆
You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.
Every Heart a Doorway is a staggeringly well-loved book. I’ve heard raving about it from friends and from authors I follow, and it’s been widely talked up in the asexual community as a shining example of textual ace representation. So… it took me a day, a bit of rereading, and some talking-through to realize that I… don’t… love it.
Oh, I love the broader concepts just fine. All of the different portal worlds, the classification of them according to morality and level of logic, the students and their varied experiences – all of that I enjoyed tremendously. I also loved Nancy, the novel’s protagonist, frankly and openly describing herself as asexual:
“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.”
And not just that, but also distinguishing between being asexual and aromantic several times:
“I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”
This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses.
The supporting cast were as quirky as expected, but great fun: diverse in their experiences, backgrounds, and personal styles, and with rich and varied relationships. My personal favorite was Kade, who got kicked out of his portal world for being a trans boy:
“They thought they had snicker-snatched a little girl – fairies love taking little girls, it’s like an addiction with them – and when they found out they had a little boy who just looked like a little girl on the outside, uh-oh, donesies. They threw him right back.”
There’s something fascinating to the idea that Kade found his identity in his world, Prism… and then lost access to that world as a result. Because he can never go back, too, he has a certain kind of pragmatism that a lot of the other students lack: he seems better able to balance extraordinary experiences against reality, and that makes him a source of stability throughout the plot.
The thing that I get stuck on, though… is the parents. None of the students’ parents ever actually appear in the story, but the hints McGuire drops about Nancy’s caught my attention. From their perspective, she’s been gone six months and they assumed she was kidnapped. They’re clearly not handling things well, especially when it comes to respecting her boundaries and self-determination, but… they’re also trying to regroup after an experience which, from the sounds of it, was more traumatic for them than it was for Nancy.
The students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children want to go back to their portal worlds, and their reasons are sympathetic:
“We didn’t care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.”
Personal aside here: I just recently came out to my parents (it went well) but before that, this was exactly what going from home to college felt like. At school I was surrounded by people who understood and to whom I could relate, and at home I felt increasingly like I was putting up a false front. The desire to be somewhere you feel deeply understood resonated with me a lot. Nancy also later referred to her parents wanting to ‘fix’ her, which… especially with that word choice, there are undertones of queer experiences here.
But even all that isn’t enough to get me past the fact that this is a story about a teenage girl who longs for the afterlife, and whose parents have already believed her dead once. Nancy longs to find her door again, and she never thinks about what that would do to her friends and family, to lose her twice. I couldn’t help but think that to her parents, suicide might be the most likely option, but that they wouldn’t even have the solid answers provided by a body to aid in their grieving process.
Seanan McGuire clearly isn’t trying to write a fairy tale happy ending here. The basic premise of Every Heart a Doorway is rooted in an inherent, usually unspoken darkness behind portal fantasies – what happens after? In the small scope afforded by a novella – especially one that also has a murder mystery subplot – she has room to explore very little of this question. I think what I’m reacting to, more than anything, is the feeling that there is more to be said here. The story raises a great many ideas, but closes its main plot in the space of two short chapters and leaves those ideas dangling in the wind. It’s intriguing, but just not satisfying, and the sum of those factors is frustration.