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Every Heart a Doorway: Seanan McGuire

OH BOY this book.

I read it for book club and then I managed to miss book club (it was Monday! On Tuesday, I looked at my email again....) and I have feelings about it. And by feelings, I mean I pretty much hated it by the end.

The book's premise is that it's set at a boarding school for the children who have gone through the portals of Fantasyland and then been spat back out. The way the Pensevie children grow up, become kings and queens, and then tumble back out of the wardrobe as children again - that's always been a bit of a weird cognitive dissonance for me, because while on one hand, it's great for the story for them to achieve those prophecies and rule a great kingdom and all. On the other hand, I can't imagine going an adult right back to a child and not having major issues. If right now I went back to being eight, keeping those memories, I'd be so messed up! And I don't even rule a kingdom.

The story's told through the perspective of a newly-returned girl, who went to a kingdom of the dead. Silent, unmoving, black. Six months pass in the real world, but much longer in the other world, and she's unsurprisingly pretty different when she comes back. Her parents, concerned, send her to Miss Eleanor West's boarding school.

Let's start with...oh god, let's start with the lecturing. I'm not here to read about Great Social Issues, and I'm ESPECIALLY not here to read about them in a tumblr-speak format. I. Can't. Stand. That. It's more acceptable if it's something that's modern, 2017, teen/YA fiction about actual teenagers. I'm not reading fantasy for that though. I am not reading fantasy to get mundane setting and context. Portal fantasy just has and evokes a different atmosphere, and to have it collide head-on with modern speech and expected norms doesn't work unless you do it really well. McGuire does not do it well. She does that thing where there's an asexual character, and that asexual character carefully explains to someone else what asexuality is. Yes, let's bring the narrative to a screeching halt so we can read a clumsily inserted infodump! The tumblr style is an additional irritant.

This would be easier to take if the characters were more than little constructs to demonstrate the various directions that fantasy worlds can take, and then murder victims. And the world building, which saves more books than I can count, didn't come in at all. McGuire divides up the worlds by plotting them on a few axes, which personally I pictured as intersecting - high/low and nonsense/logic, wickedness/virtue etc. Sumi, our protagonist Nancy's roommate, came back from a nonsense world, and characterization for that is that she's lolrandom and irreverent, and sometimes sad about it. Then she gets murdered, but not long enough after to let us actually get an attachment to her, so she's just another statistic.

Look, I said this about Joe Abercrombie and I'll say it again - a book with this much maiming and murder should not be boring. Is it boring? You have done something so so wrong! There were so many deaths! A murderer was lurking round any corner! (Why does the administration not do anything??) Why isn't there any suspense?

It's partly because I don't really care about any of the character, except maybe Lundy, who's their therapist, and she gets killed pretty quick. Tip: either go all out and make us care, or else go full Golden Age detective and just have a body be a body, and flesh out everything else. But the murder mystery isn't even interesting!

And oh, the protagonist. Frankly, I sympathized with her parents. And with most of the children's parents. While the children were having a great time in fantasyworld of whatever flavour they ended up in, their parents thought their children were kidnapped or dead or whatever. Nancy was away for months! Of course they should be overjoyed that she's alive and seemingly unharmed, of course they should be afraid that this sudden change might be symptomatic of something she's suffered during that unknown six months. Yes, Nancy, you're hurting, but would it kill you employ a little bit of empathy?

There's a mention of an opposite school, for kids who simply never want to go back to their worlds again, and want to forget. This is the school for those who desperately want to go back, and frankly it's hard to feel for Nancy when you're already irritated she's so mopey all the time and the thing she's so mopey about has no charm, no allure to at all. She stands still in the halls of the dead and she's hopelessly in love with the lord down there. That's a sketch of a world. Not enough to support nearly the amount of moping that Nancy does about it. Nostalgia is a very powerful engine for stuff like this, and McGuire could have spun a much stronger story if I actually felt sympathetic to Nancy's desire to go back. But I don't, because the concept's old and done before (pomegrantes again, you're name-checking concepts to try to give your book some associations that actually have weight, but you're attaching ballast to a sheet of paper that's the plot and character.)

The school's supposed to be "to help them move on", except I don't see anything of that - and then at the end, deus ex machina or actually not even ex machina, a door suddenly opens up! For no apparent reason! OK, it's not because of no reason. It's because she said "Nobody gets to tell me how my story ends but me." What?! Not only does this ruin all the build-up by letting the protagonist suddenly get all her dreams cause now the book needs to end, it's totally unsatisfying. I was interested in how she would interact with the rest of the world. She just gets to go back (undoing any work she did, leaving all her friends at the boarding school, not saying anything to her parents again) and...that's it! Fin!

This is the note that triggers it:
You’re nobody’s rainbow.
You’re nobody’s princess.
You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.

Arrghh. This is a message that should come out of the whole story, a theme elaborated on in the prose - an infinitely subtler message, not this cringey bald statement. This reminds me of horrific schooldays poetry. The only saving virtue is that it was written by a teenager, but it barely feels like Sumi.

3/10 because I also read Walden this year. Walden deserves 0/10, possibly lower than that. But yeah. I did not like this, do not recommend. You want portal fantasy? Don't even bother.

ETA: I just made myself mad by reading reviews. You know what a resilient heroine looks like for kids who were weird and didn't fit in? Growing up, trying, sometimes failing, making a space for themselves. NOT AN ENDING WHERE BAM, PERFECT WORLD DROPPED IN THEIR LAP! What an utterly stupid statement. What's emotional payoff, what's character arc, what's "creating a gothic world" (haha except no because we see none of it)? Argh!

Crosspost: https://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/180606.html.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 24th, 2017 04:34 am (UTC)
Its remarkable :)
Oct. 24th, 2017 02:00 pm (UTC)
Oh man, I can't tell if you mean the book and if so, whether that's a good thing or not :p
Oct. 24th, 2017 05:42 am (UTC)
So I have this complicate relationship with Seanan McGuire's work, where I keep giving it chances and it keeps disappointing me. After all the rave reviews I've seen, I was hoping Every Heart a Doorway may be one thing of hers that finally works for me. Everything about your review suggests it very likely won't, as all the things you list as infuriating are things that tend to infuriate me as well. Ah well... I'll probably still give it a shot, but with adjusted expectations, so thank you for that.
Oct. 25th, 2017 02:13 am (UTC)
The premises always sound so good! And I'm doubly disappointed because what a waste, man.

You're more forgiving than me, haha - but maybe without the expectations it'll be better than you expect??
Dec. 10th, 2018 04:40 am (UTC)
Ha, so I was scrolling back over your journal to check something, and spotted this review again, and figured I'd report that I *have* since read Every Heart a Doorway, and agree with pretty much all the criticism you have here (except I did like a couple of characters a little bit). The book irritated me A LOT!

Fortunately, I had similarly irritated companions on this journey, so we got to snark at each other about it as we live-blogged our sync-read of it on LJ.
Dec. 10th, 2018 06:49 am (UTC)
OMG you should link me to your review!! I'm so glad you also disliked it, haha
Dec. 10th, 2018 07:01 am (UTC)
Here you go. It looks like the write-up is a little less negative than I remembered, though it still gets across my frustration with the book I think -- it's possible I was mindful of a number of Seanan McGuire fans on my flist, as well as a friend who gave this book as a gift to a mutual friend :P Sadly, the liveblog post with more complaints is flocked on another journal so I cant' share that... But suffice to say that all three of us who read it disliked it.

(I did read the sequel, because I liked Jack, and disliked that one less,but am still relieved it didn't win the Hugo. Hopefully the Sumi book won't either.)

Also, huh, in checking that book 3 was in fact released in 2018, I came across the title and release date for book 4 (in about a month) which is going to be about Lundy. Wasn't expecting that!
Dec. 21st, 2018 02:20 pm (UTC)
(deleted and reposted comment as I was logged out before, oops)

Yeah you were nicer than I was!

There are three books?! I am also salty that it won a Hugo. Obviously I dislike it, and it's not like it's the worst book ever, but I am stunned that it won. There can't possibly have been a dearth of novellas published that year.
Dec. 21st, 2018 05:58 pm (UTC)
There are three books and more to come! XD (I liked book 2 better than book 1, because it was Jack-centric and I did really like Jack in EHAD, but it was definitely not flawless either, and I'm glad it didn't win the Hugo this year, because there were at least two novellas I enjoyed a lot more than it.)

Looking at 2017 novella Hugo nominees, I've only read one other book on the list (the Penric), and I would say that is a better book, although not one of LMB's best either.

But Seanan McGuire keeps winning Hugos or coming very close for reasons that have never entirely made sense to me. I mean, possibly it's just fan personality popularity, but I do genuinely get the sense that other people get something valuable and profound out of her writing that I just don't SEE, like the way dogs can hear high frequency sounds that humans can't. Reading people's reactions to McGuire books is very much like watching a dog freak out at what appears to me to be total silence -- there's probably something there they're reacting to? But I have NOOOOO idea what it is, no matter how much I strain to hear it XP
Jan. 3rd, 2019 03:28 am (UTC)
Oh god why!

I also do not understand! She seems like a nice person and I have nothing against her but this is not Hugo worthy. I have a friend whose taste is...well, not always mine but who is generally one I trust and she loves them and I just don't get it.
Oct. 24th, 2017 12:28 pm (UTC)
(Here from the Bookish comm!)

Uggh. I read your review because the premise of the book sounded interesting. Thanks for saving me the time to read it! It sounds like one of those "you wasted a perfectly good plot" books. I hate when that happens.

I don't know if you've ever read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, byt Catherynne Valente? It has a character who got swept to Fairyland, grew up there, then was pulled back to the 'real world' and forced to grow up all over again. The character is pretty messed up because of it. I loved the idea of that, the consequences to a well-known fairtytale concept. Sounds like Valente managed to pull off what McGuire... didn't.
(Also who WANTS to go back to a Kingdom of the Death? I guess Hades is REALLY hot...)
Oct. 25th, 2017 02:57 am (UTC)
Hiya! I'm glad that bookish is still kicking.

Yes, exactly! I would love to see more takes, because this one really didn't work for me.

I have not! I've heard mixed things over the years - I think probably depending on whether you like her prose stylistically, haha. But it does sound interesting.

It would have helped if he was described as appealing! Aargh. I just never got why she wanted to go back.
Dec. 21st, 2018 05:51 pm (UTC)
Just to weigh in on Cat Valente and 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated, etc.' -- I loved the premise of the book, but couldn't get through it. Valente's prose just doesn't work for me 9 times out of 10 (the only time it did was in Refrigerator Monologues, which I thought was actually really, really good. Dunno what happened there, whether writing in a particular character voice mode -- i.e. almost like fanfic -- kept the aspect of her writing that don't work for me in check, or what, but it was a very pleasant surprise.)
Jan. 3rd, 2019 03:29 am (UTC)
Cool, good to know! Sooo many mixed feelings on her, haha.
Oct. 25th, 2017 11:51 am (UTC)
Yeah, her prose can be... dividing, haha. Sometimes it's closer to poetry. It works for a Fairytale-ish setting, but you have to be in the mood for it.

Maybe the main character is a really hardcore Goth and that's why she wanted to go back? :p I hate when authors don't make a character's motivation clear.
Oct. 31st, 2017 02:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, I bet! Well, good to know. She's kinda on that really long TBR list that a lot of bookish people develop :)

Maybe? I think she initially was very sunshine and colours (partly why her parents send her off with colourful clothing) but fleshing out the underworld would have motivation etc a lot.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )



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