Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children, #1
First Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Nancy has spent the last few years in the Halls of the Dead, an underworld where stillness is valued. When she returns, she ends up at a boarding school for other teenagers like her, who are longing to return to their worlds.

Contrary to the book’s official description, it’s not about children who are spat out by their portal worlds when their potential is used up. Some can return to their worlds if they find another door. Some will go back and forth many times. Which is a pity, because I liked the idea of draining children of their miracle powers like some sort of portal world vampire, but there you go.

There’s obviously a deeper system going on here, with the worlds mapped out in directions like Nonsense and Logic, but this never really gets developed. Most of the interesting setup is dropped once the murder mystery begins. Speculative murder mysteries are my thing, but this one really didn’t work for me. I figured they’d go around finding out about everyone’s worlds, in the hopes of finding clues to the killer. What actually happens is they don’t do a lot of investigating, ignore the very obvious clues, then have the answer fall into their laps at the end. Note that this is a darker mystery, so the deaths are gory and the bodies are described in detail.

Nancy is a romantic asexual person. The book attempts to explain asexuality in basic terms, but in a way that is impersonal to Nancy. It’s like a definition for someone who hasn’t heard of asexuality. Which makes it a problem when asexuality is being defined as not having a desire for sex, rather than not feeling sexual attraction. This is true for Nancy, but not for all asexual people, so it would have been better if she’d made the description personal.

The discussion of romance is rather more confused. She makes it clear she did enjoy dating when she was young enough that there wasn’t pressure for sex. She directly states she’s not aromantic. Then she goes on to describe people as being like paintings, so she doesn’t want to date because she wouldn’t date a painting. In other words, she doesn’t get into romantic relationships with people she’s not sexually attracted to, which is no one, so therefore she doesn’t date. I’m not really sure what all that was about. Maybe Nancy was confused. Maybe the author was confused. I couldn’t tell which.

However, my biggest issue with her asexuality is that it’s portrayed as a bigger problem than having returned from the Halls of the Dead. Her parents push her to date and she thinks it’s inevitable in relationships that she’ll be pressured into sex. Nancy was put into sexually awkward situations just to show her being uncomfortable, like her roommate wanting to know if Nancy wanted sex with someone, and if she could masturbate whilst Nancy was in the room. The overall feel is that it would be impossible for Nancy to exist in society as an asexual person, and so she turns her back on society.

There’s an attempt to distance Nancy’s death and stillness from asexuality, by saying a lot of people in the Halls of the Dead were sexual. Which would work better if being asexual wasn’t a reason for her to want to return there and retreat from society forever.

Nancy states she doesn’t have an eating disorder, but that’s not how it looks. She’s attempting to survive on the food that sustained her in the Halls of the Dead. That means mostly fruit juice. It’s a fantastical eating disorder for an unusual reason, but she’s still restricting her portion sizes, and this is still going to kill her. However, as it isn’t addressed as an eating disorder, there aren’t any downsides. It’s shown as rather ethereal and mysterious, which was getting a little too close to glamourising eating disorders for my liking.

One of Nancy’s new friends is Kade, who is a trans boy. He was kicked out of his world when they realised he wasn’t a girl, his parents rejected him for it, and he also faces bigoted comments at the school. The anti-trans themes weren’t unrealistic, but were rather a downer, especially considering he’s the only one who couldn’t have the happily-ever-after of going back to his perfect world.

Jack and Jill are identical twins. It avoids some tropes (they’re not telepathic linked or treated as being identical people), but does fall into others (when one twin is good the other must be bad).

There are a few non-white characters. Sumi is Japanese. Christopher is Latino. The former doesn’t get much development time, it grated that she constantly called people stupid, and I didn’t like how her story ended. The latter has some development, though I noted his world was rather Day of the Dead, linking the world to his roots in a way that doesn’t happen for the white characters. These characters exist, but it’s the white characters who are centred.

There’s an attempt to make the school mostly being girls sound less binary by blaming it on imposed gender roles, but this didn’t work for me. Nothing about “boys will be boys” would stop them disappearing through a door in an instant. It’s possible this was intended to sound ridiculous, and Kade’s experiences would suggest the portal worlds prefer girls because they’re bigots rather than there being a real gender difference. But no character challenges this at all.

Also, I never did like the trope that adults are so vastly different from children, except for old people who are just like children. This is used to justify why adults (except for old adults) can’t cope with nonsense.

I liked the concept for this a lot more than the actual story. It’s a great idea. There’s some lovely writing in places and some of the worlds were very imaginative. But it doesn’t really come together as a whole. The inclusion reads too much like it’s there to explain terms for people who don’t know them, and has some implications I don’t like very much. This is tied up in a murder mystery that isn’t very mysterious.

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]