Series: Wayward Children #1
Published by Tor.com on April 5, 2016
Genres: Adult, Adult Fantasy
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.
Trigger warning for eating disorders.
Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World
Racial-Ethnic: 4 (good mix of identities among the kids, though the core group of characters is mostly white)
QUILTBAG: 5 (Nancy is asexual (possibly heteroromantic) and Kade is a trans boy)
Intersectionality: 5 (basically delivers the message that any kids can have a whimsical adventure)
Portal fantasy books aren’t something I think much about. I didn’t read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid; though I’ve seen the animated and live action adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, I greatly dislike them both. Even looking at my stuffed-full bookshelf of favorites, I see maybe two books that would fit the definition. But Every Heart a Doorway has an asexual main character and I therefore had to read it. Now I’m mad I didn’t read it sooner.
Every Heart a Doorway is essentially the epilogue for all sorts of portal fantasy books. If Alice Liddell found herself missing Wonderland but could no longer find/get through the door, she would have had a place at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. (If she’d hated it and wanted to never go back, she would have gone to the sister home in Maine.) The “after” isn’t something I’ve considered before, but McGuire made me start thinking about it while painting a vivid, complex picture of life After for so many of the young adventurers.
Multiple times throughout this tiny little book, I needed to stop to make highlights or bookmark pages. McGuire’s gorgeous writing is nearly impossible to pull away from and you’re unlikely to forget lines like these, which comes up when Nancy asks why so few boys are among Eleanor West’s charges:
“Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”
Two plot lines dominate the novella: Nancy adjusting to life among other wayward children who miss their portal worlds and a murder mystery that sees victims “freed” of the body parts that make them extraordinary. Though the excellent story made me sad this little book is only a novella, but when I thought about it, trying to stretch this out into a novel-length story would have made everything so much weaker. It’s just the right length to tell this story.
And of course, we have what I’ve been desperate for: AN ASEXUAL CHARACTER! Nancy (whose name keeps making me think of Nightmare on Elm Street, whoops) is ace and probably heteroromantic, but her romantic orientation doesn’t get any attention and we simply know she had boyfriends as a little girl. So an alloromantic asexual. That group suffers from a lack of canon representation just like aromantic asexuals do, so Nancy’s mere existence made me happy.
(Anyone who says people like her don’t have a place in the queer community can EAT MY PAJAMAS. Asexual people have a place in the queer community no matter their romantic orientation and if you think otherwise, you’re backwards and should feel ashamed of yourself for harming the queer community.)
My one reservation is about what I offered a trigger warning for at the beginning. Due to Nancy’s time in her Underworld, she learned to stand still for long periods of time, slow down her heartbeat, and subsist on very little food because all of those things were important to Underworld residents. After being there, she genuinely doesn’t need as much to eat or drink as she did before. However, her thoughts about how the Underworld changed her eating habits rather uncomfortably remind me of the behaviors and disordered thoughts of someone with an eating disorder, especially anorexia.
I’d rather be overly cautious and warn someone only for them to be unaffected than fail to warn them and learn later that those passages triggered them/led them to a straight-up relapse, you know?
Do I want to read more portal fantasies now? Oh yes. Do I want to read this novella’s standalone companion, Down Among the Sticks and Bones? GOOD LORD, YOU HAVE NO IDEA. Jack and Jill were among the standout characters (to be fair, almost all of the characters stood out due to their brilliant characterization) and the idea of experiencing their time on the moors firsthand is enchanting. Get some excellent novellas and ace rep in your life. Read Every Heart a Doorway if you haven’t already.