Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

25526296Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Guests

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.

My feelings for this book are… complicated.

I’ve been hearing about it for months, mainly because of its asexual main character, but I didn’t pick it up for many reasons. I’m not a fan of shorter stories, for one (I think Every Heart a Doorway is a novella or novellete? It’s ~170 pages long on my tablet), and even though the premise did sound interesting it just wasn’t my thing. But this book has been everyone’s first choice when it comes to asexual representation in SFF, so I wanted to check it out to know what to say when people ask me about it.

First, the story itself: I enjoyed the first 30-40% of the book a lot. The writing is really good and the atmosphere the author created is fantastic. But honestly, my favorite thing about Every Heart a Doorway were the other worlds, the ones the children ended up going (and leaving). They sounded so interesting and original, and I’d love to read a story set in any of them.

The story kind of flounders in the second half, though, for many reasons: the murder mystery just isn’t that interesting and, which is worse, it just isn’t that mysterious either; the characters don’t develop at all; the climax is weak and lacks real tension; the resolution also feels too easy… And, of course, the protagonist isn’t that good. She doesn’t do anything. I don’t understand why Nancy is even the main character of this story: she doesn’t make any critical choices, she doesn’t advance the plot, she is just… there, watching things happen.

That isn’t to say I hated her, but, well, she is unnecessary. The story could happen just fine without her.

Now, the ace rep: it’s… good. But like… it’s Asexuality 101 for (at least in my opinion) non-aces. It feels very impersonal and didactic (same for the trans rep, though I’m happy overall with how the trans character was handled – TW for transphobia, though it is called out in the text), and though the author gets some things right (aesthetic attraction, for example) it doesn’t deal that well with the difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. At the beginning of the book Nancy affirms she can be romantically attracted to people. Some time later, she thinks about how she likes kissing, holding hands, about how she had boyfriends in elementary school but that puberty changed the rules (aka sexual attraction entered the scene) and she started to notice she was different. But then, by the end of the book she says she doesn’t date anyone. Not girls. Not boys. Nada.

Which is just confusing and contradictory? Unless “date” here was used to mean “have sex”, which I’ve never seen happen, but well, I’m not a native English speaker. And to make things even weirder, the author uses both “aromantic” and “asexual” in the book to make it very clear that Nancy isn’t aromantic. So, why the no dating thing later?

Figuring out your sexuality and romantic orientation can be confusing, of course, so it’s possible that Nancy was still trying to understand what she feels (or doesn’t feel). But the story doesn’t frame it like that. There is not one scene in Every Heart a Doorway where Nancy feels confused or unsure about her identity. The book just… contradicts itself.

Which, taking in consideration how scarce aromantic and asexual characters are, isn’t exactly nice.

In conclusion, Every Heart a Doorway starts strong, but gets a little lost in its second half. The ace and trans rep is good, but it feels mostly for allosexual and cis people. 3.0 stars.

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

  1. I read this about six months ago after stumbling across it at my local library. I hadn’t heard anything about it and was so pleasantly surprised/shocked that there was an ace character! I do wonder if I would have been more critical of that element if I had known about it ahead of time and had built up hopes or expectations.

    As it was, with no prior knowledge, I enjoyed “Every Heart”, although it was not without its flaws. I thought the writing style was quite interesting – there are still a few lines that are stuck in my head. There is a second volume to be published in June and I am curious to read it. It looks like what you wanted as well – something set in one of the children’s worlds.

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    1. I had no idea that there would be a second volume! I was sure it would be a standalone only, but I’m glad it will be something set in one of the character’s worlds. I think it will make for a far more interesting story.
      I like the ace rep in this book, but like I said in the review it is *very* confusing and way too didactic. If I’m not mistaken the author is demisexual (though I’m not 100% sure) but not in the aromantic spectrum, which would explain the confusion re: Nancy’s romantic orientation.

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    1. thank you! the author is demisexual too, so i feel weird about not liking the ace rep in this book 100%, but the thing about nancy’s romantic orientation threw me off :/ i’m aromantic *and* asexual, so, you know, weird.
      i agree with you. it’s a nice read despite its problems, but it doesn’t really deserve the hype imo.

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  2. Thanks for this review, which gave me some new insights. I’m a great fan of Seanan’s but didn’t feel this was her best work and you’ve crystallised some of the reasons for me.

    Couple of definitional points …

    The book is about 38,000 words. For Hugo purposes it’s a novella rather than a novel.

    Using the term ‘dating’ specifically to refer to sexual relationships seems to be fairly common in the US. It’s rare in the UK.

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