Queer Book Club: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

EveryHeartaDoorway coverThis 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.

Queer Book Club: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

 

Simonvs cover picI realise everyone else has already read this book, and I’m slow off the mark, but I thought I’d review it anyway.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a YA coming out romance set in and around a Georgia high school.

I have a thing for first person stories with a really distinctive voice, and this definitely fits. The main character and narrator, Simon Spier, is a funny, likeable 17 year old, who starts up an anonymous flirty email friendship with another boy in his school. Neither of them are out as gay, and are not quite ready to share with their fellow students. The story starts when Simon accidently leaves his email logged in on a school computer, and another student finds out his secret.

(For non-US readers.) The main action of the story takes place in a high school in Georgia. High school in the UK is so much more low-key than in the US (no homecoming parades or school spirit week), so no matter how much Saved by the Bell and My So Called Life I watched in my teens, there’s always that slightly weird cultural disconnect. Also, way more cars, and much less alcohol. The differences didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment, it’s just a thing that’s there.

Even though Simon is struggling with coming out, what to do about his growing relationship with the mysterious Blue, and there’s plenty of tension around the discovery of his secret, the story is overall both funny and upbeat. It’s a sweet story of love and acceptance, and although there are dark moments, it never really gets lost in angst or despair. I saw the identity of the mystery e-boyfriend quite a bit before the reveal, but that didn’t really get in the way of my enjoyment, as the characters are fun and involving. It’s a quick and uplifting read.

(Coming soon: reviews of Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.)

Queer Book Club: The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven King coverThe Raven Cycle series is a four part YA paranormal series. Blue lives in a chaotic house full of psychics and witches, but she has no magical ability herself, other than to boost their power. When she meets Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah, four boys from the local private school, she’s drawn into their hunt for a dead Welsh king, thought to be buried along the powerful ley line that makes her home of Henrietta, Viriginia, such an unusual place. Hanging over the whole story is the foretelling that one of the boys, Gansey, will die within the year.

I just finished the final book in the series, The Raven King. I have a confession to make, before I go any further. These books have turned me into a frothing fanboy, and I’m far too old to be their target readership, and it’s all rather embarrassing. So this is not so much a review as a collection of enthusiasm.

The weird thing is, they’re not perfect. It took a good hundred pages of the first book to really pull me in. The point of view character changes per chapter, and sometimes at the start of a chapter, it wasn’t always completely obvious which point of view I was in for a little while. But those issues aside, I adore the characters and the paranormal mystery that’s at the heart of the story. Blue’s unconventional household full of eccentric women makes for an unusual and endearing heart to the story, and each of the young people is vividly painted. I even put aside the slight silliness of Welsh medieval history and mythology ending up in Virginia, because the plot was involving enough, and executed in such a creative way, that it didn’t matter. Stiefvater is very brave and imaginative in the way she expresses the world of magic and dreams, and I was often surprised and delighted by the twists and turns of the magical elements. By the second book, the stakes are so high, and the characters so enmeshed in the magic, that there’s no escaping it and everything becomes very personal.

The books took me by surprise, because the blurb on the first one, to be blunt, is kind of naff. It’s all about true love and kissing. I picked it up from the library, not expecting very much. It turns out that there’s much more paranormal plot than kissing, but there is also love and friendship. Friendship is one of the most enjoyable elements. All the core characters grow to love each other, whether that love is romantic or platonic. The celebration of friendship is so evocative of those strong, almost obsessive friendships that happen for young adults, and not necessarily later in life, and I was probably on a massive nostalgia kick. But I think it’s also that the characters’ love for one another is infectious.

The characters are complex, flawed, haunted, spiky, and completely involving. And the male/female love that’s promised from the start is not the only kind that is featured in the end. When it became clear in the second book that one of the main characters is gay, I was over the moon, not least because the books are so full of a heady homoerotic vibe that this pay off was so welcome and refreshing. And there’s more pay off with that character, but I don’t want to include spoilers. The love is beautiful to read, slow building, rewarding. The story takes the characters’ past traumas and hang-ups seriously. There are no crap clichés, just a feeling of truth and fulfilment and compromise and learning and negotiation. Like reality, but more lovely. I’m being slightly cheeky in labelling this a queer book, because really it’s an everybody book.

Read these books. Fall in love.

Queer Book Club: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

The Abyss picLast month, I joined a queer book club as part of my writing group. (It’s run by another writer, Tabitha Chirrick.) This fits nicely with my New Year’s resolution of reading a whole lot more. So far both are going well, and I thought it’d be cool to review some of the books I’m reading, both for the club and otherwise. I’m not really interested in tearing other writers down, so I’ll just cover books I enjoyed and would recommend.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a YA science fiction novel set in a bleak future where the sea has risen and is full of ruthless pirates. It has giant genetically engineered sea monsters and lesbian pirates. What more do you need, really? It was a great way to start the new club.

Cassandra Leung’s family breed the giant sea monsters that keep ships safe from pirates in this dark future, and Cassandra has spent her life learning to train the animals. She finally gets to go out with her giant sea turtle on her first lone mission. And everything goes wrong….

Cassandra finds herself on a pirate ship, surrounded by the enemy, who want to use her skills for their own protection.

So that’s the set-up, and it’s really strong. I love the concept of genetically engineered sea monsters who can tear and chew through ships. The harsh code of the trainers which means that, by rights, when Cass is captured by the enemy, she should take a suicide pill, makes it clear what sort of world this is. There are no easy choices, and the story doesn’t offer any.

The story revolves around Cass’s survival and her relationship with Swift, one of the pirate crew. Skrutskie does a good job of exploring the problematic side of the relationship between a captive and her captor, and throws in plenty of questions about how much choice they have in the roles they play and the paths they’ve taken. Refreshingly, there’s little angst about the queer nature of their relationship. Although, I would have welcomed a smidge more sexual tension at times.

It’s a quick and enjoyable read. My only criticism really is that the ending felt a little rushed, as (without giving too much away), there’s a big emotional bomb very near the end which wasn’t given enough room to be explored. But Skrutskie’s planning a sequel, so perhaps that’s why.

I’d love to know what you think of this book, if you’ve read it. More reviews coming soon.