Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

The cover of Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

My place in the library hold queue came up much faster than I expected, so this is the second book I’m reviewing for Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this novella about?

Once upon a time, Nancy went through a doorway, and ended up in the Halls of the Dead. She stayed there a while, and then ended up back in her native world. Her parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school for children who have returned from various magical worlds. Like most of the students, Nancy wishes she could go back to ‘her’ magical world.

Then one of the students at the school dies. Since Nancy has already been to an Underworld, death is not as disturbing to her as it is to most people. But it is not just a death. It is a murder. And a lot of people suspect that Nancy, the new girl, is the culprit.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novella?

There is very little sexual content. There are multiple murders, as well as some gory descriptions of various acts of violence. In other words, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Tell me more about this novella.

The premise of this story is basically “What would it be like for an Alice who had visited a Wonderland when she returns to this world? How would they be changed, and would they be able to re-adapt?” Of course, each child/teenager goes to a different ‘world’, and the story says at one point that each child is attracted to a magical world which fits them in some way.

The character I found the most enjoyable to read about, the mad scientist who went to a horror-inspired magical world, known as the Moors, and enjoys working with human bodies/corpses. Even thought most of the students consider the Moors to be, well, horrible, it suited Jack quite well. A lot of students suspect that Jack is the murderess, and Jack responds that, while she is not offended by the thought that they think she would murder someone, she is offended that they would suspect her of committing such pointless murders. Then again, I tend to like fictional characters who are … the best word to describe it is 邪, but unfortunately there is no direct equivalent of that word in English (邪 is sometimes translated into English as ‘unorthodox’ ‘evil’ ‘mischievous’ ‘demonic’, etc., but 惡 is another Chinese word for ‘evil’, and I generally enjoy reading about 惡 fictional characters less than 邪 fictional characters).

Overall, I thought this novella was a good modern extension of traditional fairy tales and children’s fantasy literature.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this as a 2.

Asexuality first comes up in this scene, when Nancy says that she is asexual:

“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.” She would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld – so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all – except that none of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did … She shook her head. “I just … I just don’t. 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.”

It does not come up again until much later in the story:

She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realizing 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.

And then, a few pages later, there is this bit:

Nancy set her hand in the crook of her elbow, feeling the traitorous red creeping back into her cheeks. 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. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school, just like most of the other girls, and she had always found those practice relationships completely satisfying. It wasn’t until puberty had come along and changed the rules that she’d started pulling away in confusion and disinterest. Kade was possibly the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen. She wanted to spend hours sitting with him and talking about pointless things. She wanted to feel his hand against her skin, to know that his presence was absolute and focused entirely on her. The trouble was, it never seemed to end there, and that was as far as she was willing to go.

First of all, looking at those excerpts again, it seems that this writer seems to consider the dividing line between ‘romantic’ and ‘aromantic’ to be enjoying kissing and hand-holding. There is discussion of this trope in this comment thread.

Also, Nancy’s asexuality does fit thematically with the story. This is a story about children / young adults who travelled to magic worlds, and as a result, their families / native communities can no longer relate to them. Likewise, in these excerpts, Nancy describes how her experience as an asexual makes it hard for her to relate to her peers, and for her peers to relate to her. These theme is drawn out even more explicitly when it comes to Kade – Kade is not ace, but he is trans. His parents, on the other hand, believe they have a ‘daughter’. Just as many parents cannot accept their children the way they are after they travel to magical worlds, and are intent on fixing them so that they are like the way they were before, Kade’s parents do not accept him as a boy.

Was this written by an asexual?

No. Seanan McGuire is bisexual. Yes, Seanan McGuire is a bi demisexual.

Sara, do you like this novella?

Yes, I do like it.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

  1. Pingback: Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. I had mixed feelings about this one–I really liked Jack and I liked the world, but the treatment of Kade by the narrative left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. (Everyone else gets a world that more or less accepts them for who they are and Kade…doesn’t, and is explicitly rejected by their world for being trans. :I And then the whole ending was just Kade getting the shortest end of the stick. *sigh*)
    I’m also kind of bored with the “I’m ace, which means I’m not interested in anyone, except this boy, I guess” trend. (It’s always interesting that, at least in the ones I’ve read, they never seem to label themselves as heteroromantic.) But that may also just be me wanting more fiction about homo/bi/panromantic women. Interestingly, I wound up identifying WAY more with Jack than with Nancy.

    • You know, I think I also identify more with Jack than with Nancy! Nancy by herself was … not super interesting.

      I actually did not think much about Kade and his relationship with his world. I did not catch that he had been thrown out because he is trans, but then again, I only read this once. I also did not get the impression that Nancy was ~that~ interested in Kade. I also don’t think Kade got the shortest end of the stick – I would think that would be Sumi and Loriel.

      EDIT: Also, I’ve read more ace fiction where the female ace character ends up being partnered (romantically or queerplantonically) with another female character than where a female ace character ends up being partnered with a male character. I think this can be entirely attributed to the fact that I have been mostly reading ace fiction from LGBTQ+ publishers, and they prefer publishing F/F over BTQ+ M/F.

  3. Pingback: “Kissing, Hand Holding, Bed Sharing, etc!” – the May 2017 Carnival of Aces – Call for Submissions – From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

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