Seanan McGuire is one of those authors with the combination of popularity and prolific production that makes them hard not to hear recommended. And yet I hadn’t actually read any of her work going into this year’s attempts to read the Hugo finalists. Her Come Tumbling Down—the fifth installment in the Wayward Children series—was nominated for Best Novella, and I figured that if I wanted the context to judge it fairly, I had better start with the series opener, Every Heart a Doorway.
The Wayward Children series takes place in a world much like ours, but with hidden (and often unstable) portals to various other universes—Fairy Worlds, Underworlds, etc. And when regular human children come back from adventures in other worlds, their families hear their tales as breaks from reality. Enter Eleanor West, an adult who had gone through a portal herself as a child and has taken it upon herself to open a boarding school for teenagers struggling with the return to their home worlds. But soon after her school gets a new resident, recently returned from the Land of the Dead, students start dying, and Eleanor and her charges must find the culprit before there’s no one left to save.
I’ve read a number of fantasy mysteries lately, and this one reminds me of The Imaginary Corpse in that the mystery—despite taking the bulk of the plot—doesn’t feel like the point of the story. It’s competently done but not really anything special. Rather, Every Heart a Doorway is primarily a story of various teenagers working through the trauma of returning from worlds they had loved and learning to build relationships with people who had journeyed to other worlds. We get context for each character through their stories of life on the other side of the portals, and we see how those shaping experiences generate conflict both with their environment and their fellows.
The background worldbuilding is the standout aspect of the novella, with the concept capturing the magic of portal fantasies and providing rich, albeit limited descriptions of more than a few worlds. But the character dynamics are a close second, with conflicts both internal and interpersonal that feel totally compelling given each character’s history. The tone of the novella is a bit more enraptured with individualism than I’d personally prefer, and I’m not sure the character progression quite supports the final aspect of the ending, but the portal magic and the character work are enough to drive a very good novella despite an unremarkable mystery and a sudden ending.
Recommended if you like: portal fantasies, teenagers working through personal and interpersonal trauma.
Can I use it for Bingo? Yes, for a number of squares. It fits hard mode for Trans/NB Character, Found Family, and arguably Genre Mashup (portal fantasy, murder mystery, magic school). It also has Chapter Titles and could certainly be a Comfort Read for some, despite the murdering.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.