I’ve finished Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, again (in my defense it’s a dainty little book, not even 200 pages). I love it. I have not one single negative thing that I can think of to say about it. I wish I could send a copy back in time to my teenage self, because she really could have used a book like that.
First off, take a minute before you start reading to really appreciate the cover art, because its wonderful.
Mechanically, it’s a great book. The pacing is great; tense, but not rushed. The world-building is incredibly lush, not only for Eleanor’s school and the general setting, but also for each of the students’ portal worlds, even the ones that only get described for a passage or so. The classification system developed to explain the different portal universes, plotted on two axes, virtue to wickedness and nonsense to logic, but peppered with minor directions like, rhyme, and linearity, is just plain fun. Its also very fan-friendly. Its deeply appealing for self-sorting (I’m high virtue, high logic, low linearity, how about you?) and its just begging to be used as an AU setting. The characters are wonderfully lifelike, diverse and brilliantly written. They all have immense emotional depth and even when I didn’t like them, I felt for them.
So, I’ve been looking forward to this book since I first heard the premise, because a boarding school for portal fantasy heroes is exactly the sort of story I would like, regardless of anything else. But when I found out that it had an ace lead character I immediately bought it in hard cover, instead of just getting a kindle version. Having actually read it, I now need a folio edition because a regular hard-cover just doesn’t express my love of this book sufficiently.
Not only is Nancy an ace character, she’s a fantastic ace character. She’s well developed and interesting and her asexuality is an integral and integrated part of her, but never subsumes her personality. I have nothing bad at all to say about her. I love her. I am deeply grateful to Seanan McGuire for writing her.
There’s one thing in specific, about the way that Nancy’s identity is presented that I want to focus on, the paragraph where Nancy first comes out:
“I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings” She would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld – so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all – except that non of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did. The Lord of the Dead and the Lady of Shadows had spread their ardour throughout the palace, and all had been warmed by its light.
It would have been incredibly easy to overlook that people might associate asexuality with an affinity for death, or to leave the clarification for later. But instead, the whole train of thought is cut off right away. No one gets a chance to ask if maybe Nancy’s sexual orientation is why Nancy was drawn to the Underworld, so no one has a chance to decide that the answer is yes. Its an incredibly deft way of dodging a nasty stereotype, and I really appreciated it.
MEANINGFUL SPOILERS EXIST BEYOND THIS POINT
Fundamentally Every Heart is about belonging and being accepted. The whole point of Eleanor’s school is to give the students a safe place where they can be accepted and talk about their experiences honestly without having their sanity questioned. Belonging is the whole reason that Doors exist the basis of the complex multiverse that the story takes place in, beyond the sorting system that is used to describe all the different worlds in relation to each other is that the door that any individual goes through, will take them to the universe where they can be most purely themselves. And even as the body-count stacks up, most of the students would rather stay at the school where they are being murdered one by one than go home
“For us, the places we went were home. 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.”
Is my favourite summary of this idea, within the story.
Most of the portal worlds are not described as entirely nice places. All of them contained serious genuine danger and life-changing, often brutal adventure, and its never glossed over that while some of the children who go through a Door and don’t come back chose to stay, others died. But to the students at Eleanor’s school, it doesn’t matter, because being in a place where they could be fully themselves, and where that made them celebrated and special, outweighed any danger.
The concept of owning your true nature is integral to the finale of the novel.
An earlier reviewer critiqued the ending for ‘lacking catharsis’ since Nancy appears, to them to go back by ‘deciding to’ and without giving anything up. Just like everyone’s door is a little bit different everyone has different novels that speak to them. But I find this interpretation of the ending profoundly baffling.
Its established right at the beginning that Nancy was sent back to her family to ‘be sure’ before she returned permanently to the Halls of the Dead. But right from the go Nancy is really very sure that she wants to go back. Nancy doesn’t appear conflicted about leaving at the end because she actually isn’t. She is profoundly certain that the choice she is making is correct. Why then does it take the full length of the story for Nancy’s Door to reappear?
I don’t think Nancy was sent back to be sure that she wanted to stay. She was sent back to be sure of herself as a person. Nancy’s capacity for stillness and silence were the traits that were valued the most when she was in underworld, but back home she constantly struggles to retain them while people around her encourage her to be louder and faster and more like them. She spends most of the novel terrified that she’ll be too influenced by this to be able to go back. Nancy’s capacity for perfect stillness saves her life and helps end a string of murders in the novels climax. But achieving a new level of stillness isn’t when Nancy’s door appears.
Just before her Door reappears, Nancy, for the first time, genuinely begins to come to terms with the fact that she may never return to the Halls of the Dead, and that if that never happens, she will still be okay.
“She could learn to be happy here, if she had to.”
The actual precipitating event, which brings Nancy’s Door back is a letter from Sumi (incidentally I loved the way this gave Sumi’s actions some impact on the story that existed beyond her death). This is the exact line:
“Nobody gets to tell me how my story ends but me.”
The air in the room seemed to shift.
The letter still in her hand, Nancy turned. The stairs were gone. There was a doorway in their place, solid oak and so familiar.
What allows Nancy to go home is not that she wants to go home, its that she is sure enough of being her own person that she can hold onto the person she wants to be even when she’s faced with a world that doesn’t have the same values, and isn’t constructed to support her.
Coming-Of-Age, in once sense or another is at the heart of most Portal fantasy and Every Heart a Doorway is no exception, but like it extends the story of most portal fantasies, it also extends the theme. Not only does Nancy have to find herself, she has to be able to understand and keep hold of herself.
I adore this development.
For me the process of developing this form of self-possession has been incredibly central to becoming an adult. Its important to figure out how you want to be, and what you love and what’s important to you, but beyond that, you have to learn how to hold onto that and use that knowledge, not only when you’re in an environment that supports that, and shares those values, but also when you’re not. Knowing how you want to be is not sufficient, you must also be how you want to be, even in the face of opposition.
And the first half of that, the getting to know yourself half has a lot of fiction dedicated to it. But that second step, which, at least for me, has been much harder, is hardly written about at all. So it is incredibly cathartic and validating to me to read a story where that process of learning to hang onto yourself is not only in the narrative, but central to it.