Portal fantasies are pretty common in middle grade and YA literature, but it isn’t often asked what happens to the children who come back. Seanan McGuire attempts to answer that with her latest novel but I’m not sure the book, and its answers, works for me completely.
Eleanor West runs a school for children who have returned from their otherlands/Fairylands. These are children who no longer feel at home in the mundane world and long, more then anything, to return to the world that kicked them out. Nancy is recently returned from the halls of the dead, and this land of the quick and busy is foreign to her. Her parents place her in the school in the hopes that she’ll find a way to be normal again, though Normal is the last thing Nancy wants to be. At the school she finds a secondary home, one not quite as perfect for her as the Halls of the Dead, but at least it’s a place where other people understand what it’s like to be so displaced in this world. And then murder happens.
There were things that I really enjoyed about this book. It is a beautiful love story to portal fantasies and the dream of every child who ever just wanted so badly to ‘go there’ that they look and LOOKED for a doorway. She really does capture the idea that home is where you belong because it fits you, doors only open to those who would fit in the worlds behind them. (I’m less fond of the Narnia swipe she makes. But bygones).
There is also a lovely theme about being unique but also loved among a group of similar misfits.
There is some lovely commentary on sexism. In explaining why the school houses more girls then boys one of the teachers explains:
Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lundy. “They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. 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.
There are also some great bits on gender, she has trans character, a boy who was rejected from his world because he wasn’t the girl they thought he was. I think I still have issues with how she handles trans characters though. I think it’s awesome that she includes them, but this is the second story she’s written with a trans character where the magic misgenders the character and the character suffers for it. Now understand that in both worlds magic is the thing that is supposed to know you inside and out and fits to YOU as you are, which means that the magic should have been able to see beyond the outside appearance and know the gender of the character. On the other hand, yay for inclusion and perhaps that’s where I should stop as I am a cis gender woman.
What doesn’t work for me is two fold. The first is that she only allows for two types of returnees. Those who hated their time in the otherlands and simply want to move on with their lives, and those who cannot bear that they have returned and will do anything to get back. The first are mentioned only briefly in the school’s orientation, and I do like that they’re at least mentioned. But what she doesn’t leave room for in that dichotomy are the children who had an adventure in a distant Fairyland and loved it, never want to forget it, but are also quite glad to be home (in this mundane world) again.
The other thing that doesn’t work for me is the sudden MURDER that pops up about half-way through the book. And when I say sudden, I don’t mean that it doesn’t fit into the framework of the story because it does. I just mean that it feels as though McGuire isn’t quite sure how to write a novel without a mystery to solve, and this novel really didn’t need it. There is plenty of plot in trying to navigate a world you no longer belong in, without the added ‘who done it’ side bar. It’s especially frustrating as Nancy’s character arc is essentially divorced from the murder and the surrounding mystery.
Truthfully, I think both of my issues could be summed up thusly. McGuire and I would have opened doors to very different otherlands if the possibility had been presented to us, and this is the book where I feel that most strongly.