Solitair vs. The Hugos 3: Every Heart a Doorway

“Why are there so many more girls here than boys?”

“Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lundy. “They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”

(The following post contains spoilers for this novella.)

When discussing the Puppy debacle of the last two years, a friend of mine said that an ignored warning sign was the fact that Seanan McGuire got five nominations on the 2013 ballot, an unprecedented record. The Hugo awards have seen some of the most famous names in speculative fiction, from Ray Bradbury to Ursula K. LeGuin to Samuel Delany. Based on this novella and the Newsflesh trilogy, McGuire is a good writer, but she’s not that good.

Her offering from last year, Every Heart a Doorway, begins with a premise almost as interesting to me as that of Newsflesh; it’s set at a school for children who desperately want to get back to the fantastical other worlds they got whisked away to earlier in life. It reminds me of the webcomic Cheshire Crossing, but without the terrible artwork and with creative original worlds in place of Wonderland, Oz, and Never Never Land. The plot is a murder mystery at its core, but even before then it’s easy to get invested in new student Nancy’s attempt to fit in, and her worries that she’ll never get called back to the statuesque tombs where she felt most at home.

There’s a lot to like in this novella. I particularly enjoyed the new spin on high school social drama, where the girls from prettier fantasy worlds with princesses and unicorns throw suspicion on the protagonists from macabre worlds, the world that McGuire and I are most interested in exploring. The mystery aspect is simple, without much in the way of clues or red herrings, but in a story where magic exists I think this is the better option. It’s still possible to guess the culprit before the reveal, or in my case go “Of course! I should have known,” which does away with the most common complaint of all mystery stories. However, in comparison with the competition, there were a few spots where Every Heart lost me.

First of all, there’s a hint of lecturing here and there. The quote that I put up in the header is somewhat on the nose and I think there’s room, even among feminists, to argue about the logic behind the professor’s statement. Narnia is also brought up, which prompts another kid to yell that C.S. Lewis got the process wrong and exploited it to sell books. Since I’m not a Christian and I’m still mad at what he did to Susan, I can let that slide.

The book’s biggest problems start with the ending of the story. Everything in the story, murders included, hinges on the idea that all of these children (and the staff at the school) are misfits. They no longer feel comfortable in a normal society that doesn’t believe that their paradises even exist and wants them to forget about them and move on with their lives. However, when all of these people are under one roof, the fact that they’ve all had roughly the same experience gives them common ground and stick together. While the possibility of returning to other worlds is never dismissed outright, the tone makes it clear that it’s a long shot, and that reintegration into modern society, while difficult, is a much safer bet. Until the last few pages, I thought the point of Every Heart a Doorway was to caution against losing oneself to escapism while still remaining sympathetic to the misfits and outcasts of the world. Then, just as Nancy has an epiphany about how she won’t let her life bring her down, and how she can count on the friends she made at school, this makes the doorway to her world appear and she leaves, presumably for good. I no longer know what McGuire was trying to say with this novella.

If only it stopped there. Instead, the ebook I read contained two annoying prequel chapters, telling the story of how two side characters’ yuppie stereotype parents decided to have children with no regard for actually caring for other human beings. There are people out there who only want children because they get jealous of other people’s kids or because they think it will make others like and respect them more; I have no doubt about that. But I didn’t need or want to see these people whine about how unfair life is for giving them what they only thought they wanted, plus the chapters cut off their story before the babies actually start growing, so there’s no payoff to it. On further research, that’s because they’re a preview of the next novella in this series, which I feel no need to buy.

As a cherry on top, McGuire’s “about the author” page is actually three pages, going on for far too long about her quirky hobbies and trying too hard to impress upon the reader just how interesting she is. Memo to any published author who reads this: keep these pages short and sweet. Loading them up with twee little details will not make me like you more as a person. I will like you because of your work and maybe an interview or con appearance, not this.

Every Heart a Doorway is this year’s equivalent of The Slow and Silent Things: both start off with a killer premise that kept me engaged for most of their wordcounts, but then they trip at the finish line and leave me feeling embarrassed on their authors’ behalf, though in this case the letdown isn’t as big. I’d still recommend it, but not nearly as much as some other stories this year.

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