Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

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Every Heart a Doorway takes place in a boarding school for children who have traveled through portals to other worlds and desperately want to go back because they don’t quite fit in to this world anymore. Their parents, while well-meaning, just don’t understand them. They think their children are fantasy-prone and didn’t really go to another world. However, Eleanor, the headmistress of the school, knows other worlds do exist because she has visited one herself.

Our viewpoint character is Nancy who went to a world called The Halls of the Dead. Bright colors hurt her eyes. Children who went to more traditional fairylands think she’s creepy, but she makes friends with other kids who also went to creepy worlds. She’s asexual, although not aromantic, so she enjoys flirting and holding hands with her crush, but doesn’t have any interest in it going further than that.

Her roommate Sumi spent ten years in a nonsense world, so she’s Nancy’s opposite in many ways. Twins named Jack (short for Jacqueline) and Jill went to a horror-movie-type world with vampires and mad scientists. Kade went to a fairyland that kicked him out when they realized he wasn’t the girl he appeared to be.

Since the main characters are teenagers, I think this qualifies as YA, although it’s worth noting that there are frank discussions about sex (necrophilia gets mentioned) and curse words are used throughout, so don’t read this if you want to avoid that sort of thing. Despite the jaded way the characters talk about sex, all of them seem to be in a perpetual state of embarrassment based on the fact their cheeks redden so often.

Girls far outnumber boys in the school, partly because fairies prefer to kidnap girls, but also because boys are so loud and rambunctious, parents will notice when a boy is missing sooner than they notice a missing girl. Boys are more likely to misbehave than girls, so parents keep a closer eye on them.

I’ve got to say statements like the following make me think the author doesn’t know that much about boys: “Most of the boys she’d known were noisy creatures, encouraged to be so by their parents and friends. Even when they were naturally quiet, they forced themselves to be loud, to avoid censure and mockery.” This statement didn’t ring true to me at all. Boys are just as capable of blending into the background as girls, and girls are just as capable of being the center of attention as boys. You’d think gross generalizations like this would be a thing of the past by now.

We’re told that Narnia was just made up and real portals don’t work like the ones in that book. It’s always amusing when a fantasy story accuses other fantasy stories of being fake, isn’t it?

When students at the school start getting murdered, the headmistress, fearing the school might get shut down, decides to cover it up. Would every student in the school really go along with this? Is it even possible for this many people to all keep a secret so big? We’re told children routinely disappear from the school due to finding portals to other worlds, and the headmistress simply tells the parents their child ran away. You’d think numerous children running away from the school would get it shut down after a while, but it doesn’t.

We’re told one character can communicate with the dead and asks a skeleton who murdered her at one point. The skeleton can’t speak, but can answer yes or no questions by nodding. Instead of asking a yes or no question to narrow down who the murderer was (they could have asked if the killer was a student or teacher, male or female, visitor to a logic or nonsense world, etc.) they instead ask “Who killed you?” When the skeleton points at nothing, they give up the interrogation. Really? With people getting murdered around them, you’d think they’d try just a little bit harder to find out who the murderer is.

We also learn another character is able to raise people from the dead, but this isn’t mentioned until the end of the novella. Seems kind of sloppy to not mention this earlier when the murders first started happening.

There’s problems with the plot, but the fun characters and dark humor make that less noticeable. At one point a character is asked why she took a man’s lungs out while he was still alive and she replies, “Why wouldn’t I?” If you like that kind of humor, you’ll enjoy this.

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