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Literature / Every Heart a Doorway

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Every Heart a Doorway is the first novel in the Wayward Children series written by Seanan McGuire. What happens to children who go through the wardrobe, or fall through the looking glass, and then come back? Well, some of them go to Eleanor West's school, where no one tries to make them be normal or tells them their worlds weren't real, and where they might just find a way back home.

Nancy is Eleanor's newest student. She went through a doorway to the Halls of the Dead. When she asked to stay forever, the Lord told her to be sure—and sent her back to Earth. Her parents don't understand why she won't eat a full meal or wear bright colours, so they pack her off to boarding school. There she quickly befriends several other students: Sumi, a madcap girl who went to someplace like Wonderland; Kade, the exiled Goblin Prince in Waiting; Jack and Jill, twins who went to a horror-movie world called the Moors; and Christopher, who became engaged in the world of Día de Muertos. Nancy is just settling in when a classmate is brutally murdered. Who is it? What do they want? And can they be stopped before it's too late?

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: It's strongly implied that a number of the students' parents are not actually very good parents at all. Nancy's parents are the nicest ones we encounter, and they are oblivious to their daughter's asexuality and take away her clothes of choice to force her to wear things that make her look more like their "little girl". Sumi has childhood pictures of herself looking very sad, still, and meek. Kade's parents misgender him and refuse to take him back unless he presents as female according to their wishes. Jack and Jill's parents are implied to be the worst of all, and almost certainly contributed to one of their children becoming a monster and a serial killer and the other becoming a sororicidal mad scientist and then Down Among the Sticks and Bones would show them both to be assholes who thought of children as extensions of themselves rather than individuals with their own inner worlds. Eleanor believes this may be a factor in what kids get taken: because they are abused into minimizing parts of themselves, the world they need calls all the more to them.
  • Adults Are Useless: Played straight with the students' parents, who don't understand them and think they need to be cured. Averted with Eleanor and Lundy, although they don't solve the murder; they are competent and protect the school to the best of their ability, which gives Nancy and company the opportunity to stop the killer.
  • Anyone Can Die: Victims of the murderer include Cloud Cuckoo Lander Sumi and Lundy.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Neither Jack nor Jill is completely truthful about why they got kicked out of the Moors, but while Jack is lying for practical reasons and eventually tells Nancy the truth, Jill clearly believes her self-aggrandizing version of events.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Angela. She seems like a sweet girl who just misses her magical world full of rainbows, but as soon as she's under stress, she becomes incredibly cruel, blaming Nancy, Christopher, and especially Jack for the murders just because they went to "creepy" worlds and slinging transphobic insults at Kade.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nancy returns to the Halls of the Dead, fulfilling her heart's desire but leaving her friends behind. Jack and Jill also return to their world, but Jill had to kill three people and die herself in order to make it happen, and it's unknown if she'll ever find redemption or happiness or if she and Jack will ever reconcile. And of course, the sorry fates of Jill's victims can't be reversed.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Sumi went to a high Nonsense world—essentially The Wonderland, where the rules of physics are broken. She talks mainly in alliteration and behaves something like a hummingbird on speed, but when provoked, she can be brutal. This appears to be the case with a lot of high Nonsense worlds in general. In Sumi's case, she decided she liked Nancy and this automatically protected Nancy from hazing by the other students, because none of them wanted to mess with Sumi.
  • Boarding School: Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school, but there are others who serve the same kinds of kids:
    There are two schools in North America, this campus and our sister school in Maine. That’s where the students who hated their travels go, to learn how to move on. How to forget.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Living in worlds with distinctly different moral systems seems to have made most of the kids
  • Cain and Abel: Jill tries to murder Jack, and Jack does kill her, which was always the condition for Jack's return to the Moors. Downplayed, however, as Jack intends to resurrect her if at all possible.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Deconstructed. The book looks at what happens if you took a kid (usually a girl) into another world for their formative childhood/adolescent years, taught them to play by the rules of that world, got them invested, and then sent them home to the "real" world with no warning and no say in the matter, to families who thought they were missing or dead. Most of them have no idea how to relate to their families or peer group, and are packed off, if they're very lucky, to Eleanor's boarding school; Jack outlines the alternatives, which are to spend the rest of their lives medicated into a stupor, or wind up on the streets.
  • Chekhov's Gun: It's mentioned early in the book that Eleanor can still access her Door, but she can't enter it because she's become too old, and has to wait until she's old and senile enough to return. When Lundy is murdered, Eleanor evacuates several of the high-Nonsense children to her world through that Door, noting that while it might not be an exact match to their worlds, it's the best chance they've got.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Nonsense worlds tend to attract people who have the potential to be this and turn them up to eleven. Sumi is the most notable example.
  • Darker and Edgier: A more subtle take on the genre of the child transported to a Magical Land, examining what happens if that child gets used up, or doesn't play by the rules, and the number it does on their sanity and ability to function once they're returned back to their "own" world. And that's before the brutal mutilations and murders start...
  • Dark Is Not Evil: As Eleanor notes on the group therapy session on high Wicked worlds. Nancy came from an Underworld but if anything it just made her more respectful of others. Webworld, a kingdom of spiders and insects, is mentioned to be one of the better worlds to fall into because of the kindness of the inhabitants, and Loriel's adopted mother, the Queen of Dust, always kept the door open for her and mourned for a year when she didn't return. Jack is creepy as hell and alien but she and her mentor were doctors working with the twisted science of the Moors.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: Both the Underworlds we see are quite nice places. Nancy's world has rules, but they are fair and the Lord of the Dead takes good care of all his subjects. And Christopher's world of dancing skeletons is a joyous and welcoming realm, if a touch creepy by our fleshly standards.
  • Good is Not Nice: Many times, a member of the cast does something that seems cold (like covering up Sumi and Loriel's murders) or treat someone's suffering matter-of-factly, but they are also aggressively trying to do what needs to be done...and given where they all spent most of their formative years, it's visibly hard for most them to maintain basic social niceties.
  • Hollywood Acid: Jack, whose world is based on old Hammer Horror films, has a greenish color, when most acids are clear. Averted in its effects though, as Jack mentions that it will take an hour for Loriel's flesh to completely dissolve from her bones.
  • Human Resources: The killer at the school is collecting bits of the victims, specifically the best, strongest parts of them. Sumi's hands, Loriel's eyes, Lundy's brain... The killer takes all these for a reason: she wants to construct a "skeleton key", a perfect girl who can be used to unlock the door to any world, allowing the killer to get back into hers...
  • Improbably Female Cast: Discussed. Nancy asks Eleanor why, if the worlds call to everyone, the majority of the kids are girls. Eleanor explains that boys tend to be raised with more caution and parents are more careful about them wandering off, while girls aren't under as much scrutiny, so it's easier for them to vanish. Notably, the most prominent male character is a trans boy whose parents still insist he's female.
  • Lunacy: There was
    An Underworld ... [t]hat ... was accessed by walking through a special mirror, under the full moon.
  • Mad Scientist: Jack's mentor, Dr Bleak. Also Jack herself.
  • Magical Land: All of the kids at Eleanor West's school were in one of these...and were usually kicked out for breaking the rules/getting too old, or strayed out by accident, and all of them desperately want to go back. One of them is even willing to kill for the chance...
  • Magic Mirror: Some worlds are gotten to by mirrors, a specific example is given of:
    An Underworld ... [t]hat ... was accessed by walking through a special mirror, under the full moon.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: At one point, Jack gets stabbed by Jill. All she does is calmly say she believes she needs some help before she passes out.
  • Motive Rant: Jill gives one to Nancy, Christopher, Jack, and Kade before Jack kills her by stabbing her in the back.
  • Mouse World: Webworld, where Loriel went. It was a kingdom of spiders and insects, and she almost became a princess there.
  • Mistaken for Granite: This is the trait that Nancy caries back from the Halls of the Dead. While there were ghosts there Nancy was one of the Living Statues; living people who can hold themselves so still that the stillness spreads into their very cells so time itself stops.
    • It's pointed out that this takes both a large amount of strength and a suspension of biological rules given how the human circulatory system works. Regardless even outside her Door, Nancy can freeze so completely that people can walk feet from her without noticing. Which is how she discovers Jill.
  • Narnia Time: Time passes differently in some of the other worlds, which means that children who spend years on one side may only be missing for a few days or weeks in the real world. Averted with the Moors, however - Jack and Jill's five years there occurred in real-time.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Christopher. Well, his fiancée is a skeleton.
  • Not Me This Time: In Jack and Jill's world, they essentially assumed the rule of Daddy's Little Villain. And, due to a misunderstanding of ownership, Jack once dissected another student's guinea pig. This understandably causes her to fall under suspicion when mutilated bodies start turning up, but she points out that if it had been her, she wouldn't have taken just one thing.
  • Older Than They Look: Lundy. She looks eight, but is actually very old—she made a deal to age backwards so she could stay in her world after becoming an adult, but it backfired when they kicked her out for trying to game the system. Sumi as well. It's implied many students are this, since traveling between worlds messes with the aging process.
  • Organ Theft: The murderer at the school is all about this. And for a reason...
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Jill's Master was a vampire who kept her around essentially as a pet.
  • Portal Picture:
    What, you thought Miss West could sweep up every child who’d ever stumbled into a painting and discovered a magical world on the other side?
  • Really 700 Years Old: Eleanor is almost a hundred, but looks like she's in her sixties, because going through her door so many times made time react to her differently.
  • Scary Scarecrows: Mentioned, as a reference to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
    Narration came naturally after a time spent in the company of talking scarecrows or disappearing cats.
  • Serial Killer: It starts with Sumi, who loses both hands...while alive. Then Loriel has their eyes pulled out, again while alive...
  • Shout-Out: To The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland:
    Narration came naturally after a time spent in the company of talking scarecrows or disappearing cats.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Seraphina's world, which was high Nonsense and high Wicked, made her this. Nobody actually listens to what she says, they just respond positively because she's so pretty that they all want her to like them. (This effect seems to fade when as she's not in the room, since Kade can still insult her.) Don't feel too sorry for her, though—she's not a very nice person.
  • Sociopathic Hero: All of the kids have had their morality tweaked from what might be considered standard human, but Jack is perhaps the triumphant example, with just one example being her constant insistence that various characters think she might be the murderer doesn't offend her, but that they'd think she would be so sloppy as to leave a body behind does. Nevertheless, she is definitely on the heroic side of things.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: What happens to those who return from the other worlds after having adapted to them.
    An Underworld ... [t]hat ... was accessed by walking through a special mirror, under the full moon. The girl we lost to that world was home for the holidays when the door opened for her a second time. Her mother broke the glass after she went through. We learned later that the mother had also been there—it was a generational portal—and had wanted to spare her daughter the pain of returning.
  • Supernaturally-Validated Trans Person: Kade is a trans boy. The faeries took him because they thought he was a girl - when the dying Goblin King sees his true self and declares him his prince, he gets kicked back into the real world.
  • Take That!: One character brings up Narnia. The students are (understandably) not fond of C. S. Lewis, and make it clear.
  • Trademark Favourite Food: Nancy and pomegranates. Fitting, since she went to a Greco-Roman-styled underworld.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Let's just say you shouldn't believe what Jill tells you about the Moors. Jack is also this, to a much lesser extent; as people already dislike her, "I can go home any time if I murder my sister" is not information it's a good idea for her to spread.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: By themselves, Jacqueline and Jillian are not odd names. But when you give them to twins...oops.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Goblin King declared Kade his heir after the latter mortally wounded him in battle.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: The chief source of angst, combined with Stranger in a Familiar Land. Nancy and the other students (except Kade) desperately want to return to their otherworlds, and many believe that the rulers of said worlds are simply waiting before calling them back again. But some doors only open once. There are some aversions however.
    • One Underworlder got to go back:
    An Underworld ... [t]hat ... was accessed by walking through a special mirror, under the full moon. The girl we lost to that world was home for the holidays when the door opened for her a second time.
    • Eleanor's door has always been open for her. Unfortunately, she physically can't handle her world anymore; her adult mindset is unable to deal with the Nonsense nature of it and she was nearly driven insane when she got too old to keep hopping between worlds and didn't realize it. She's stated (only half-jokingly) that she's just waiting until she's old enough to start going senile in order to be able to survive going home again. Until then she'll continue doing everything she can for the girls at her school.
    • Loriel's door to Webworld was in her room the whole time, but she died before she could find it.
    • Jack could always return to the Moors. She simply had to choose whether to leave Jill behind or change her so that the Master couldn't have her.
    • At the book's end, Nancy is finally sure that she wishes to return to the Halls of the Dead - and sure enough, the door appears.
    • Poor Kade actually gets this from both sides, ironically for the same reason. The fae thought they had a little girl, and were not best pleased when they realized they were wrong, and his parents have essentially disowned him unless he comes home as "Katie".