Every Heart a Doorway is a much-anticipated YA novella about a magical boarding school for girls who've returned from adventures in fantastical worlds. Seanan McGuire, who also writes as Mira Grant, is known for writing original, quirky, fun novels, filled with witty characters who have snappy repartee. A bit like the original Scooby Gang in Buffy.
Right from the first glimpse of the cover, there's a sense that Every Heart a Doorway is aiming higher than usual. Seanan McGuire's stories are always fun and fast-paced, but this time, there's a sense that the author is not just aiming to entertain, but to write something memorable and touching and meaningful.
The premise interrogates common fantasy tropes the same way that, for example, The Rest of Us Just Live Here does. There's a real, intelligent engagement with the trope, taking the premise quite seriously. Many of the most iconic stories about kids entering fantasy worlds have young girls on the cusp of puberty / adulthood as their protagonists. (A fact which has inspired other authors to write pornography about these travelling girls). Unsurprisingly, one of the questions the story handles is the why and wherefore of this pattern. What does it say about our societies, and what does it say about girls?
But it wouldn't be a Seanan McGuire story if it just focused on meta-analysis and literary critique. Every Heart a Doorway is many things, but its plot engine is a serial killer murder mystery. You barely get time to adjust to this unique school and its memorable residents before gruesome murders start to occur. At the same time, our young characters grapple with issues of sexuality, asexuality and trans-sexuality, romance and love. Plus, of course, the all-consuming longing to find their ways back to those magical worlds where they found, temporarily, a real home for their true selves...
Every teenager in the story is quite self-absorbed, so when murders do occur, they do not grieve as much as I first expected. As much as the cover and title hint at a deep and emotive story, it turns out that these magical travellers are not quite able to connect with others. Their main motive in trying to solve the murders isn't justice, nor even their own safety, but preserving the independence of their school, so they can continue to have this friendly safe space to recover from the trauma of separation from their worlds. Survival is a secondary consideration. Justice does not feature at all. Perhaps the somewhat shallow connections between characters appear this way because our main protagonist is a goth girl who has only just returned from her fantasy world, and whose every instinct is to stand by, to be removed, to be background. She's completely uncomfortable about being dragged into the centre of a story. There are hints that other characters have stronger connections, but even so, there is a sense of hollowness about many of them: they may have returned from their worlds, but they have not returned unscathed.
Every Heart a Doorway is a story of longing, of not belonging, of friendship, of adolescence, and of murder. It's a novella that packs more ideas in its short length than many a full-length novel, while keeping the reader entertained with witty repartee and fast prose. Its main flaw is that it is far too quick: as a reader I wanted to spend more time in this world with these characters. I wanted the immersion to be richer, longer-lasting, deeper.