Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is an adult urban fantasy novel, and the first in the Wayward Children series. This sucker has been on my To-Be-Read list for about a hundred years now, and after reading it, I am kicking myself for not starting it sooner. It has so many wonderful qualities that make it lovely, however, I don’t believe it is worth all of the hype in the world, particularly where fantasy and fluid storytelling are concerned.
Every Heart a Doorway revolves around a young girl named Nancy who has recently returned from a dark, magical realm. Believing their child to have “mental problems,” her parents send her to a sort of rehabilitation centre, where she meets other children—younger and older—who have had their very own magic-infused dimension-hopping experiences. Upon arriving, Nancy is very confused regarding the place, inhabitants, and strange terminology that is being tossed around. However, she quickly comes to recognise that this is a home for people to be comfortable in their own skins without adults telling them they are wrong or forcing them to identify as things that they are not.
‘We didn’t care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.’
Initially when I began reading Every Heart a Doorway, I felt a deep sense of being just as lost as these kids were when they returned home. There were tons of references that I didn’t understand, and nothing was every explained in a straightforward manner. I felt that I had been air-dropped into the centre of a foreign country where I had never heard of the language. It created a sense of disassociation between me and the story. Yet, as I kept on reading, the comprehension of the world and situation started to feel less cloudy and less disjointed.
The ambiguity of the narrative can be a severe deal-breaker for many readers, as it almost was for me. The execution of the progression and the consistent veil of vagueness is not going to be an aspect that every reader will enjoy or appreciate, more so if you are an avid fan of deep world or atmosphere-building. One of the vibes that I got from reading the novel is that this was the author’s intention because she wants her readers to use their imagination; to find the magic within ourselves to mould the world and setting of Every Heart a Doorway a bit to our own personas. We’re given the foundation and what we make of it is up to us and our interpretation. I think it was to help us understand the kids themselves and a bit of the confusion and difficulties that they faced when they first encountered their respective magical realms, as well as the disorientation of returning home, in most cases, many years later. It’s effect, nevertheless, was hit-or-miss. In the end, I appreciated the gesture and came to respect it.
Regardless of the awkwardness of the narrative style, I adored the messages about acceptance and the positive reinforcement that it’s completely okay to be yourself, no matter what that is, and that parents don’t always know what is best for their kids. This leads to a variety of diverse cast members. Our protagonist, for example, is an asexual girl who also exhibits aromantic qualities and she is Goth. Then we have a trans male, a non-binary person, and a couple of others. They were all portrayed very respectfully (speaking as a non-binary, asexual who also identifies as trans). I’ve never read a book with asexual representation before, so seeing it here and immediately connecting with the character, created a personal and profound connection between me and Nancy. Also, the trans male character, Kade, was another character that I felt very akin to. Between him and Nancy, my heart was full of warmth and joy with seeing myself in the pages of a book.
‘This is not an asylum, and you are not mad—and so what if you were? This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it’s all of you. All of you…No one outside of this room will ever understand what you’ve been through the way the people around you right now understand…’
I have read reviews where people say that the book is guilty of aromantic erasure. I am on a spectrum between biromantic and aromantic, and I feel that the subtlety of Nancy’s aromantic traits can definitely be construed that way. However, there is a section in the book where Nancy talks about being attracted to boys and having mild feelings for them, wanting to kiss them a little bit, but anything beyond that repulses her. She also mentions, once again quite thinly, that she could never have a romantic relationship because she is incapable of feeling what is needed to be in one. For me, as I read the book, these things felt like she was describing herself to be both asexual and aromantic. I think the representation and its accuracy will be unique to the individual reader, more so for #OwnVoices readers, depending on where you are on the spectrums of both identities.
The fantasy facets of the novel are light and more referenced that fully explored. Since this is the first book in a series, I strongly believe that we will get more fantasy-heavy characteristics in future instalments. Every Heart a Doorway is definitely an introduction to a universe, offering the most basic idea of what’s to come. In this manner, I was a bit disappointed with it because I was hoping to visit the realms that these kids had. My mind and imagination were ready for the ride. When it didn’t occur, as I said, I was saddened.
Some other things to keep in mind when reading is that the pacing can feel sluggish initially, more than likely due to the cryptic introduction to the setting and situations, and there is an air of mystery as the plot becomes complex with a twist I wasn’t expecting. In some ways the twist added more depth to an otherwise one-dimensional narrative, yet simultaneously, it was just as out of place as these kids in the “normal” world. In the end, it was another element I enjoyed because it did create that parallel, that duality, with the kids that the author seems to have been building up.
Overall, if you don’t mind a bit of an ambiguous fantasy story, and if you would like a short read filled with amazing quotes, then I recommend you read Every Heart a Doorway. If you are an aromantic reader, do go into it with a grain of salt since, as I’ve mentioned, the representation of aromanticism will depend on your specific identity.
4 hot cocoas outta 5!
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