Books: Every Heart a Doorway and Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan Maguire
Every Heart a Doorway
“You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.”
A friend of mine actually bought me Every Heart a Doorway for my birthday as she knew how desperate I was to read a fantasy with an asexual protagonist (that and the premise distinctly appealed to me).
Whilst the novella that is in the list is the third book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, since I was behind in my reviews anyway I figured I would review both of these at the same time. And you may have noticed I have not included the second one on here, I haven’t read that one yet but you can easily read the third one after the first with no difficulties.
The setting for the series is the modern day in a school for children who have come back from going to other worlds through various doors and are struggling to adapt to being back in the world of their birth.
The main protagonist for the first book is a young woman called Nancy who is a newcomer at the school. She has returned from an underworld where everything was quiet and still and struggles to deal with the noise of the world she is in now. A murder a the school not long after she arrives leads other to wonder if she is the killer and now she has to help find out the truth of what happened or perhaps risk the new home she has found here.
So, to start with, as I mentioned before the main reason I wanted to read this book is because of the asexual protagonist. I have not read many things that I get to see this aspect of myself in, so unless the book fucked up that representation it was going to be hard for it to be something I would dislike. I am saying this as it is possible that my high praise for the story comes in part from the emotions this book gives me for Nancy and how excellent she is.
I could wax lyrical about the various varieties of identities on the asexual spectrum, but that would significantly derail things but if you want to learn more, please do google the subject, there’s a lot of good resources out there and I would suggest starting with AVEN (the asexual visibility and education network). Nancy is a heteroromantic asexual, which means she is romantically attracted to the opposite gender, but doesn’t look at them and want to have sex with them. So we’re not quite the same thing, but that doesn’t matter, having her sexuality confirmed without a fuss and it not being everything the story is about is wonderful.
“Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.”
To be fair, I do also love that the story is a murder mystery and the premise of the setting is absolutely fantastic. I grew up reading portal fantasies and few of them really deal much with what it would be like to come back having had an entirely different life elsewhere only to have to try and adjust to life here with no one believing you about where you have been and why you are different now.
The setting is vast in terms of how many doors there seems to be and whilst we do not get massive details for all of them, the author does a damn good job of making them feel like real, internally consistent realms from what we do find out. The story is also an excellent analogy for found families over born ones.
Those who go through the doors tend to do so because they are in the wrong world and they find what they are missing there. This can echo for people who grew up isolated and bullied for having interests that weren’t shared by others, for those whose sexuality or race set them apart, or being neurodiverse or being trans or non-binary. This is the other reason why the book called to me so strongly. I have often felt I don’t properly fit into the world and the idea of finding somewhere that fits and then losing it is both beautiful and heart-breaking.
Beneath the Sugar Sky
“You are not a cake, you are a human being, and I can see your vagina”, snapped Nadya.
The stranger shrugged, “It’s a nice one, I’m not ashamed of it.”
Now we get to the one which is actually up for Hugo consideration. This is the third book in the series, but the story follows on fairly well from the events in the first book (as mentioned above) and that works really well.
I will say that even the premise for the third book is something of a spoiler for things that happened in the first one so I am actually going to put pretty much the whole of the rest of this review under a cut as I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone.
So probably best to read on only if you either have read the series (or part of it) already or having plot points to stories spoilered is not something that remotely bothers you. Either way, consider yourselves suitably warned!
“For others, the lure of a world where they fit is too great to escape, and they will spend the rest of their lives rattling at windows and peering at locks, trying to find the way home.”
This story is set in the school to start with and follows a young woman called Cora, who is another newcomer to the school. She is a plus sized woman who has come back from a place where she was a mermaid and is struggling to find her place here. Her life is upended again with the arrival of Rini, a young woman claiming to be Sumi’s daughter (one of the students who was killed in the first book) and if they do not help her she will cease to exist due to her mother never having given birth to her in the first place.
Cora, and a group of other students, now must go on a quest to see if there is a way to restore Sumi before Rini is removed from existence entirely. This will take them on a quest through several worlds, including a visit to the Halls of the Dead where Nancy has returned to.
So I loved this book too, but not quite as much as I enjoyed the first one. First off, excellent representation in having a plus sized hero who gets to do a number of things in the story. This is excellent and honestly we need more of this in stories. Cora was well-done and I hope there is more of her in later stories.
The quest was a bit too… obvious maybe? It also ran into the problem of doing a quest plot in a Novella by the nature of the medium makes it very linear and short and that didn’t entirely work to make it the best it could be. I think in some ways going to the other worlds in this fashion made it feel a bit easier to get into than I expected as well. In the first book it seems that the likelihood of finding a way back through a door is very slim so it did feel a little strange that they could go on an adventure into other worlds and I did spend a while trying to work out what impact that could have on the setting going forwards.
It was good to see more details on the worlds that people go to though, it made them feel even more real than the hints we get in the first book. As mentioned before, I am not sure how I feel about seeing more stories in them. On one hand it’s fascinating to see the worlds she has created, on the other the stories did seem to intend to be more about what people had lost and dealing with that than this story seemed to show.
There was a lot to love about the book though and I do still intend to pick up the rest of the series when I can (maybe at WorldCon if I am lucky) and I will definitely do later posts on the others once I have read them.