Every Heart a Doorway, set at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, is a novel (novella?) that I felt was more about the allegory than the story, though Cory Doctorow feels that it’s the other way around. Not that I didn’t like this (beautifully-written) book: I did, a whole lot. It just felt less about the plot or even the characters and more about the ideas. There’s a fairy-tale feel to Every Heart a Doorway, which is appropriate, given its subject: the Home for Wayward Children is a school for teenagers who have traveled to other realms via magic portals but had to leave, for whatever reason or non-reason, and now find themselves back in our world, each yearning for the place they left, the place where they felt right/understood/at home.
Near the beginning of the book we meet Nancy, a new student at the school: she’s been to the Halls of the Dead and wants to go back. Her roommate, Sumi, tells her she should know better: “You can’t go back. Once they throw you out, you can’t go back,” Sumi says, but others at the school share Nancy’s hope (26). As the book progresses we get to learn bits about where other students have been: the other worlds they’ve traveled to are roughly divided into worlds governed by Logic and worlds governed by Nonsense, with Wickedness and Virtue as the other main “compass points” by which the worlds are categorized, though there are other characteristics too, like Rhyme and Linearity, or Whimsy and Wild. A pair of twins went to a world with wild moors and vampires and a Doctor-Frankenstein-ish mad scientist; another girl went to a place with “boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips”; when someone else tells about the world she went to, it’s “a majestic, epic tale of spider princesses and tiny dynasties”; a boy who turns out to be able to make bones dance went to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” that he describes as “pretty sunshiny, but sort of sunshine by way of Día de los Muertos” (56, 95, 110).
There’s a lot in this book about the tensions of growing up, about parents like Nancy’s who say they want their “real daughter back,” parents who want the children they knew and can’t/won’t figure out how to let those children be the people they’re becoming. There’s a lot, too, about identity and self-determination and belonging/not-belonging, and kids/teens figuring out who they are: Nancy is asexual and talks about the challenges of explaining that to her peers; there’s also a trans boy, Kade, who talks about how his trip to a Fairyland was the first time he was properly seen as himself, rather than as a girl. Every student ended up in a realm that was right for them: as Jack (short for Jacqueline), one of the twins, puts it, “for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be” (57). All of this worked for me, moreso than the other aspect of the story, which is a horror-inflected mystery plot, though it wasn’t bad, just not what I found the most appealing (and hard to talk about without being spoilery!).
If you’re curious, you can read an excerpt of this book over at io9.