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Holiday Reading

Every Heart A Doorway (Seanan McGuire) (2016): My library's now offers multiple apps which support electronic audiobooks, and critically, the ability to change the readback speed.

Less than five minutes into Heart I said, "you have got to be kidding me," and kicked it up to 1.2x speed. This at least kept the narrative flowing fast enough the worldbuilding issues accumulated faster than I could argue with them.

The premise: teenage girl returns from adventures in a portal fantasy world, gets sent to boarding school for other children like her. Her first, oh, week, at Ms. West's School for Wayward Children coincides with a Shocking Murder.

Heart's premise gives it the chance to fuse portal fantasy, boarding school story, and murder mystery, in a YA setting. It doesn't do any of these things terrifically well. To do mysteries well you need excellent plot control; to do fantasy I like there ought to be excellent world-building. Heart... doesn't do this. I am not a boarding school fiction aficionado, so I can't comment there, except by way of other fantasy fusions like The Magicians and the Harry Potter series.

Heart bombs the cold open. Our introduction to Miss Eleanor West of Ms West's School for Wayward Children opens with omniscient voice description of her lies that she tells prospective children's parents or legal guardians to help her get the students enrolled. Because she believes so much in the rightness of her cause - helping the children who have returned from other worlds - that it's okay, even laudable, to lie, because the world is wrong and Eleanor is right, yes?

As a reader, when a character starts right off by lying without a qualm, I'm not inclined to believe they will stop lying. The novel flunks its first character introduction, the evocation of the novel's Professor Xavier.

The fantasy worlds the characters traveled to, and from, are considered important enough that mos characters introduce themselves with mini-tales of their fall from their Edens. But Heart does not do a great job breathing life into those worlds, possibly a side effect of the telling. The worlds are flattened by the similarity of introduction, and also by their distance from the reader... but mostly, it's the similarities.

There's a problem with secondary world "bleedthrough" effect. On reflection, I think McGuire really meant to build in long-term changes to characters who went through a portal, but flunks the reveal, again because it's the 21st C, I expect unreliable narration, and the intro is a teenage girl dramatically announcing she has Rogue hair because the Lord of the Dead touched it, it's not dyed, etc. McGuire could use this tension to say something about how we trust or distrust our teenage girls, but no, she does things like present a young woman skipping meals and loudly proclaims it's not because she's anorexic, it's because in her secondary world she learned not to eat! It's an insult to the thinking reader. And then, if you go to the effort of making a character a baby mad scientist who canonically dissected another student's pet into a science project, it's really hard to walk back from that at the very end of the novel, unless you're a writer of much greater subtlety and prose control than what's on display in this novel.

The plot of the murder mystery falls down on failures of pacing and character introduction. "Look at my left hand", the story says, "look at my left hand, as I provide tons of alibis for that hand, because the story has wobbled back into boarding school mode, let that evade the right-hand clue-by-four of the identical twin sister who has a really messed up vampire thing going on."

The ending... okay, I'll almost give the story its ending. The protagonist is sent back from her fantasy world with the injunction to experience her world of origin to be really sure she wants to stay in "her" secondary world. She spends most of the novel pining to return. At the very moment she considers she might have found some measure of equilibrium in her world of origin, she gets to go back to "her" world. It's too bad that the protagonist's return is presented as a result of someone saying, "you get to pick how your story ends" rather than fulfilling the fantasy world's requirement, or, you know, the protagonist having a full experience of Earth life and making a choice with open eyes. It tries, but it doesn't work for me.

What Heart does do is create something like emotional rapport. The secondary worlds borrow widely from speculative fiction, folk tales, and fairy tales, in the broadest most evocative strokes, perfect for a little fill-in by the imaginative reader. It's the sort of thing that's amazing at twelve or fifteen, when you're reading with the feeling spirit rather than the critical eye.

tl;dr this novel has an interesting concept it does not execute on very well at all and I am formally done trying to like Seanan McGuire's fiction. I am glad her work is well received and loved by others, but my experiences with her fiction have consistently been an exercise in Not For Me.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/675780.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.