Alice fell down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. Dorothy was whisked away to Oz by a tornado. Wendy, Michael, and John flew away to Never Land with Peter Pan, and Harry Potter could just go to Platform 9¾ whenever he needed to enter the wizarding world. Literature is full of examples of children who stepped (or fell. Or were dragged) into one of many different variations of fairyland..
Some children when they return are happy to have escaped alive. Most grow up and remember their adventure as a childhood daydream. A few get to stay in fairyland forever. Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated novella Every Heart a Doorway is set in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school for those travelers who’d do anything to go back.
“Off you go. Dream sweetly, try not to sleepwalk, and please don’t wake me up at midnight trying to force a portal to manifest in the downstairs pantry. It isn’t going to happen.”
I’m sure there are a ton of “after the adventure” stories out there, but this is the aspect I’ve always wanted someone to explore. If you went to a magical world and then woke up in your old life, would you be happy with an “I guess it was all a dream”? It would be even worse if you’d actually made a life for yourself in the other place. The characters in Seanan’s story dismissed the Narnia books as being written by someone who didn’t really know what he was talking about, but it’s always bugged me how C.S. Lewis had the Pevensies live for fifteen years as kings and queens of Narnia before having them stumble back through the wardrobe into their childhood bodies again. How exactly does someone just have a do-over on puberty? And wouldn’t you feel awful for the friends on the other side who’ll spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to you?
Then there’s the parents, the ones who’s children insist they were on a magical journey, even if they were only gone for a few hours, or they never left their bedroom. If their son or daughter disappeared for months or years then they might be willing to cut them a little slack for being a little off. Trauma from the “kidnapping”, that sort of thing. But even the most understanding parent in the world is going to have trouble with a child who spends all their waking hours desperately searching for the door that will take them back. The children who have it worse would be the misfits, the chronically misunderstood, the ones who finally found a place where they can be who they really are, only to have to go right back to well-meaning parents and their attempts to make them “normal.”
“It’s really sad, because they care so damn much, and they’re so completely wrong about everything, you know?”
Nancy spent several years in the Halls of the Dead, and now her parents have sent her off to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children to try to treat their seventeen-year-old daughter for her “delusions”. Fortunately Eleanor had her own adventures in another world, and she set up the school when she got too old go back for a long time, if ever. She tells parents that the school tries to cure children; what it really does is teach them understand what they went through, and help them accept that if they haven’t found their door by now then they’re probably not going to. It’s less of a school, and more of a refuge for former travelers…
…at least until the murders start.
The bulk of the novella is a murder mystery, but what I loved most about this story was the depth of the world that McGuire created, with for all the different worlds the children can travel to. Children rarely end up in the same world, and every child has their own story. Some stories we get in full detail, like Nancy’s trip to a world of the graceful dead, with ghosts and ballrooms and people trained to turn as still as statues, fed on air and sweetened pomegranate juice. We get tantalizing glimpses of others, things mentioned in group therapy, or the ways that some of the students were changed by their travels. Sumi’s world was colorful and bizarre, and she cheerfully makes as little sense as possible. Jack climbed down a secret staircase to the Moors, and came back a mad scientist with a matter-of-fact attitude towards corpses.
“Is this a creepy perv thing?” asked Christopher, as he and Nancy maneuvered the body through the lab. “I’m not sure I can stay to help if it’s a creepy perv thing.”
“I don’t like corpses in that way unless they’ve been reanimated,” said Jack. “Corpses are incapable of offering informed consent, and are hence no better than vibrators.”
“I wish that didn’t make so much sense.”
Another element that appeals to my detail-obsessed heart is the classification system McGuire came up with for all the different fairytale worlds. Instead of North, South, East, and West, the compass points for the worlds are Nonsense, Logic, Wickedness, and Virtue. I could see this sort of thing starting some amazing discussions about where one’s favorite fantasy book falls, especially if you include some of the tangential categories the author throws in without a lot of explanation.
Lundy’s explanation of the cardinal directions of portals had been, if anything, less helpful than Jack’s, and had involved a lot more diagrams, and some offhanded comments about minor directions, like Whimsy and Wild.
I’ve been trying to figure out what the chances are for this story to win the Hugo award for best novella. I thought the whodunnit ended up being a tiny bit predictable, and the message about needing to accept people for who they are instead of who society thinks they should be is really really necessary, but not subtle. China Miéville’s This Census Taker may edge this one out, but I still enjoyed this one the most out of the three that I’ve read so far, enough that I want to read anything else that McGuire writes in the Wayward Children series; the next one’s out now, and it mostly focuses on the backstory for two of the characters we’ve already met.