Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Find this story
(Portal Fiction; Wayward Children) Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children helps kids who passed through a portal to another world and returned unable to cope with this one. (38,800 words; Time: 2h:09m)

Rating: ★★★★★ Award-Worthy
Recommended By: JStrahan Nebula Hugo Locus

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"," by (edited by Lee Harris), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Several excellent interacting plot lines work themselves out elegantly.

Nancy has to earn her place in the Halls of the Dead. Through her service to her dead (and living) classmates, she does exactly that. Further, from her habits (e.g. freezing) we know she really does belong there. This makes the ending surprisingly moving.

Kade needs to show that he can step into Eleanor's shoes. At almost every step of the adventure, he impresses us with his resolve, his level-headedness, and his leadership.

Jack wants to return to the Moors. We know from the start that Jack's story and Jill's story about how they got sent back didn't agree at all, so we're not entirely surprised to learn that Jack could have returned at any time.

Ironically, Jill gets what she wanted too--but not in the way she wanted it. She returns, but not as the mistress of the vampire lord.

The characters become very real to us, we care about them, and despite their numbers, we never mix them up.

The portal worlds themselves (which we never visit until the last page) add a good bit to the story. Each one is different and the little bits we hear about them are tantalizing.

It's worth mentioning that the prejudice Kade faced in the Prism world was the reverse of what transsexuals face in our world. Here he's persecuted by people who think he's not "really" a boy; over there he was persecuted once they realized he really was a boy. Appropriate, since he went to a mirror world.

Con: It's hard to believe the place wouldn't be crawling with police after the first murder. "Young Girl Murdered and Mutilated at Rehab Center!" would be national news, most likely. Boxing up Sumi's things before the police even searched her room would look pretty suspicious.

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22 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I agree with the rating.

    It is a very good idea for a story.
    Starts good, and gets very good mid-way or just before mid-way when stuff starts to happen.

    I did wonder about the police presence, but put it down to this fictional world not being the same world that we live in. The school was pretty eccentric.

    The last third of the story is like a dark fantasy.

    1. Nice to see you again!

      This is one of my favorite stories of the year so far.

    2. Mine too, but I know I haven't read nearly as much as you so it's good to hear it's still one of your favorites.

  2. Here's an interesting article that uses this story's guidelines to map various fictional portal worlds into one multiverse.

  3. This is the one highly praised story I just didn't get. It is way too long, and while it's interesting enough, it's not brilliant. I really thought I'd love it, and I just didn't. Happens.

    1. Our data suggest that if you take any pair of short-fiction reviewers and look at how they rated different stories, they will only recommend the same story about 30% to 40% of the time. So if you find you're agreeing with us more than 40% of the time, we're doing well.

      The one I can't fathom is why anyone likes "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies." It's a plotless revenge fantasy with an all-powerful protagonist. How did it even get published, much less short-listed for awards?

    2. I certainly didn't nominate "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" myself. It is written with a lot of panache, however. Granted, over a very short space. I think it's a weak nominee, overall, but it's not a bad piece of writing. But your point stands -- there's no real plot, and no real conflict. The prose is strong. I think a lot of this is what's been called "virtue signalling" -- the story is against rape and murder. Who isn't?

      I would say -- I'd have published it. I like making room for short-shorts, and I like bravura prose. I wouldn't have expected it to get an award nomination, though.

      There are a lot of stories on the list that I think of as "meh" nominees, to use Abigail Nussbaum's word. I do think, really -- and I don't want to come off as a Puppy but there is a point here -- that people need to insist, a little more, on intriguing plots, original SFnal (to include Fantastical, of course) ideas, as well as good writing.

      And you know what? You might find I've contradicted myself on occasion! But only in exceptional cases!

    3. My issue with the puppies wasn't their critique of popular SFF; it was their tactics. Also, the works the nominated in 2015 were all either mediocre or incomplete. (e.g. I loved the Flynn story, but it was unreadable if you didn't read the prior story in the sequence.)

      I like to think that when I review stories I too am looking for "a great story, well-told." That's almost never what the puppies come up with, though.

      However, when I look at this year's short SFF Hugo nominees, I see that I recommended exactly half of them (9 of 18). I don't think I can complain about that.

      What does seem to be missing is space-exploration stories. This year, anyway. In fact, they're almost all fantasy this year for some reason.

      As for the message in "talons," I think the real message of the story is supposed to be that men who murder women shouldn't be glamorized--their names should be forgotten. That's actually a decent message; it's criminal that someone like Ted Bundy is famous but his victims are unknown. Unfortunately even the most noble message won't rescue a bad story.

      I agree as well that the writing in "talons" is excellent. That's probably a big part of how it got published despite the lack of plot and conflict. And, as you say, the virtue-signaling. But the people nominating it would have to be virtue-signaling to themselves!

  4. Well, absolutely about the Puppy choices -- I always thought -- and wrote -- "If they waned to promote a different sort of SF, that's fine [except for the tactics, of course] -- but why promote such crap!"

    (I do think nominators are virtue-signaling to themselves (if perhaps somewhat unconsciously), yes.)

    And, yes -- lots of fantasy. I'm not one of those who thinks the Hugos should be SF only -- Fantasy is certainly allowed! But I admit I'd have liked to see more pure SF as well. That I put down to personal preference, though -- it's not something I'll complain about.

  5. Ack. Alas. This one really didn't work for me.

    It came across to me as incoherent, mostly. What was I meant to be looking at, anticipating, reading for? The premise of teens trapped longing for impossible worlds they'd left behind is a strong one -- but it's immediately shunted into the background for a whodunnit. But the whodunnit's also weak; there are no suspects, and no real threat or tension beyond the bog-standard "people will die."

    I really didn't care for the characters. They all seemed to me like a jumble of informed traits, without much personality or really doing very much. (Jack is the one exception, and there's one bit where the story veers out of Nancy's POV and I started wondering why this is even Nancy's story to begin with.)

    There was also just this ongoing sense of inconsistency, of a kind of half-bakedness, that had me getting ever more skeptical and untrusting. Stuff like Jack saying "I once removed a man's lungs from his chest while he was still alive, awake, and trying to talk" ("Why would you do something like that?" "Why wouldn't I?"), and then later going "Dr. Bleak and I never killed anyone -- not on purpose--". Ok, sure.

    Or, well, the ending -- where the motive for the murder has zero relation to anything we've seen so far for why doors open, and for who. I found it incredibly frustrating.

    I don't think I've ever read anything of McGuire's before. I was ready for "not up my alley," but I admit, I was really disappointed :-/

    1. I read the overarching story as Nancy's struggle to figure out what she really is and to find a way to fit in. The subplots--even the whodunnit--are mostly steps along the way.

      As for Jack's comment about the lungs, I didn't believe a lot of what Jack said, so I didn't expect consistency.

      I liked the fact that the characters were different from each other. In so many stories, there are too many characters and you can't tell them apart.

    2. What would you describe as the steps in Nancy's struggle?

      I'm having a hard time seeing a coherent arc here. I see it as kind of:
      * Wants to go back
      * Can't
      * Lands in the middle of a murder mystery
      * Mystery is resolved (not, in any meaningful way, by Nancy)
      * Ok, now you can

      But, if you feel there were substantial milestones to Nancy understanding herself and struggling with her problems, I would love to hear your thoughts :)

    3. As for the characters... I felt like they had very different backstories, but within the story itself, they're fairly uniform. All preoccupied with exactly the same things; responding in the same way; speaking in very similar voices. Jack was the only character I felt had her own voice.

      A question: would you consider this a character piece? On the MICE quotient, is this a Character story? I feel like it maybe started out as one, but the whodunnit overwhelms the Character element completely.

      And then... the characters don't really have much opportunity to express themselves, to make choices. I think it's "quintessentially Kade" to run the Home's wardrobe exchange, and "quintessentially Jack" to have stockpiled acid for dissolving bodies, but I don't feel that anything in the story is "quintessentially Nancy." Does that make sense?

    4. I hadn't seen the MICE Quotient idea before. Very interesting! Like most such things, it's only an approximation, but I can see how it provides a useful tool to talk about stories.

      So looking back at this story (without actually rereading it), I'd say it would be a Character story with an Idea story (the whodunnit) nested inside it. Nancy interacts with a good number of the other kids, and each interaction tells us more about her, and makes it more and more obvious where she belongs.

      To really do this right, though, I'd need to reread it. It has been almost 11 months since I read it, and I've read ~800 other stories since then.

    5. LOL. Yes, not remembering all the nuances sure makes sense :) But I always enjoy talking stories with you and hearing your take, even so.

      (I guess I'll have to make do with all the other people who'll be reading it now... :P )

    6. Been a while since I read it too. But I'm kinda confused as to why you feel the murder mystery feels disconnected with the portal kids premise. I mean the murderer was willing to kill to get back.

    7. @Laura: Well, basically:

      Caring "Do the kids get back to their fairyland" is very different then caring "Do the kids get murdered by a serial killer?"

      Caring "Does Nancy adjust to her new-old way of life?" is very different then "Does Nancy find the killer?". Caring "What kind of society forms when a bunch of portal-teens live together?" is very different then "Which one of these teens is the killer?".

      I'm not saying there's no link at all, but it isn't a very essential one. The whodunnit questions feel to me like a diversion from the more fundamental ones, and the ones that make the story unique and intriguing.

    8. Without the murder mystery, though, would we have had a chance to see what these kids are really like? I think the story needed some sort of "embedded plot" in order to develop the larger one.

    9. I didn't find the mystery too distracting because it wasn't that hard to figure out. Then you're left seeing how the characters handle it.

    10. @Laura: How would you describe "how the characters handle it"? Like, what vibes and milestones did you get from the characters, rather than from the mystery?

      I felt that my attention was supposed to be on the mystery, and I didn't feel like I was getting too much from the main characters during that time.

    11. As I said, it's been a while since I read it. I don't remember when exactly I figured it out. But by the time the skeleton points to the space next to Jack in answer to who did it, it was only confirmation for me. So I felt the focus was more on the glimpses we got of the various worlds, how the characters behaved toward each other, and how each seemed to be coping in the "real" world.

  6. @Greg: I definitely think that's the reason the plot was in. Nonetheless...
    (A) An "embedded plot" isn't the only way to do this. You can write a plot that's more intimately tied to characters and themes. Just off the top of my head, I'd totally read a story about Jack and Jill submitting college applications -- that would bring all their issues and themes to a head.
    (B) "Embedding" a plot can be done well, or it can be done... less well. Here I felt like it was done less well, drowning out the characters with a "side quest" and not really giving much in return.

    Obviously, YMMV :) But "author did X for REASON" doesn't mean "author did X and it worked well." :P