Portal fantasies have always been a popular subgenre for tweens and teens. Which makes sense – stepping (or falling) over a magical threshold into a strange new world is an apt metaphor for puberty. Perhaps that’s why we feel the need to make apologies for still enjoying it as adults. As a result, “portal fantasy for grown-ups” is becoming Very Much a Thing. The latest entry in this niche is Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire.
Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series is ostensibly a middle grade book, despite pretty dark, mature themes. Lev Grossman’s cynical Magicians trilogy, with references to drugs and sex, is aimed squarely at adults. Every Heart a Doorway falls somewhere in the middle, featuring older teens dealing with questions of identity – including what their identity should be after “outgrowing” their role as heroic children in a fantasy world.
If you ever pondered how badly it would suck to be a King or Queen in Narnia for decades, only to make a wrong turn at the lamp post and end up back in your ordinary prepubescent life, this is the book for you. Our main character, Nancy, finds herself unable to move on with her life after six months – during which years passed for her – in a different world. At Evelyn West’s Home for Wayward Children, she meets a dozen or so others who have experienced the same thing.
Valente’s series felt, to me, like an homage to Wonderland and Oz. Grossman is transparently focused on Narnia (and to a lesser extent, the Potterverse). In contrast, in a pretty short book, McGuire gives us glimpses of a startlingly diverse multiverse, with its own fascinating classification system. This system provides a new spin on high school cliques, with kids forming tribes based on similarities in the worlds they left behind.
Every Heart a Doorway also switches the plot up by avoiding a typical hero’s journey, instead opting for a murder mystery. But even if you figure out whodunnit, the more important mystery is who these kids will decide to become, after their “epic adventure.”
I really enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway. The question of what to do with yourself after a major, life-altering event is relatable. The characters seem human, despite being either endearingly or disturbingly odd. I’d also love to dive through some of those doorways which McGuire only gives us the barest look behind.
If you found Fairyland too whimsical and nonsensical, and Fillory too cynical and angsty, this might be (in the words of Goldilocks) just right.