This was July’s chosen read for the queer book club I joined, and I’m really glad it was. Every Heart a Doorway is a YA novella. It’s quite hard to pin down the genre—it’s kind of fantasy, but modern fantasy with a fairy tale vibe to it, and a fair few gothic elements. (Yeah, it’s queer and gothic. Hold me!)
The story is set in a school for young people who have been through magical doorways to other worlds, where they felt at home, and then have been forced to return to this world, where they don’t. The school is run by Eleanor West, a woman who once had a doorway adventure herself, and wants to help those who are struggling to find their place back in this world. Almost all the young people in the school want to find their way back to their magical worlds. The main character, Nancy, found herself in the Halls of the Dead, and learned the joy of stillness. She danced with the Lord of the Dead, and served the Lady as a statue, subsisting on the juice of pomegranates. Now the normal world seems so full of bustle and movement, and awkward relationships where people make assumptions that don’t fit with Nancy’s desires.
Nancy is asexual, but not aromantic. She enjoys flirtation and attention from boys she likes, but she doesn’t want things to go any further than that. She finds negotiating her way around relationships really tricky, and would far rather return to the simpler magic world where she found peace. I’ve read other feedback online from people on the ace spectrum who are really pleased with the representation. It’s not an area of identity where I have any personal experience, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment, other than Nancy is a great character, and the way her identity is handled feels nuanced to me. I like the way McGuire uses a gothic world to express what Nancy wants; it seems to fit really well.
Nancy befriends other students who found their homes in darker worlds, and finds even at Eleanor West’s school, those who travelled to lighter, more playful worlds are suspicious of people like her. When one of the students is killed, suspicion falls on Nancy and her friends.
Seanan McGuire’s idea of the different magical worlds found through doorways is such a rich one—she could probably write several books exploring this idea, as well as this relatively short one. I’d have happily read a much longer book about this, although Every Heart a Doorway does a heck of a lot in a small space. I really love the idea of the doorways, and McGuire uses them to explore identity and belonging in such nuanced and subtle ways, it makes our usual boxes and labels look clumsy and inadequate (which they often are). It really struck a chord with me.
There are some great supporting characters. There’s a trans boy, Kade, who I really love. I didn’t realise there was a trans character when I started reading, so that was a lovely surprise. More spec fic with trans characters, please! Kade’s doorway world was a fairy world, governed by very strict and complicated rules. He managed to best a goblin king and was named his heir, but then, when the goblin king died, the fairies who ruled there threw him out because they wanted little princesses in their world. Kade’s made himself a new life in the attic of the school, surrounded by books and fabric, and has appointed himself as fixer for the school. Nancy meets him when she finds out her parents have switched her beloved monochromatic goth clothing for a suitcase of rainbow garments. They want back their colourful little girl who first went through the doorway; they don’t understand who Nancy has become (or perhaps, who she really was all along).
The only element I’m not completely sure of with this book is the central murder mystery plot. It doesn’t feel completely necessary to me, especially in a novella length book. There is so much to say about the doorway worlds and the students’ journeys of self-discovery. I’d have happily read a book just about that. However, it still works as a story, and there’s absolutely no padding or filler at all, no waiting around. The pacing is extremely tight, which makes a refreshing change, as I’ve read a few books recently that took a little while to get going.
This really is a special book, and I’d love to see more written in this setting. The story says so much about figuring out who you are, and all the messiness and complexity that can entail, as well as finding a place where people see you for who you are. I also enjoyed the gothic edge to the story, which I should say goes pretty dark in places. This story ticked so many boxes for me, I’m feeling a bit giddy.