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.

The Seafarer’s Kiss – Julia Ember

Seafarer's Kiss CoverFirst Published: 4nd May, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ersel dreams of life beyond the constrictive rules of her merfolk clan. Then she finds a human stranded on the ice.

This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid following the sea witch. It’s set in colder waters with a Norse mythology feel. It follows Ersel’s developing relationship with Ragna, the young woman she finds on the ice, and the deals Ersel makes with Loki to attempt to get what she wants.

One thing that bothers me in mermaid stories is when they’re written as though they take place on land. One moment someone is swimming, and the next they’re doing something that wouldn’t work underwater. This is one of those stories. The great hall is set out like a cafeteria with tables, benches and people carrying food on trays. A bowl is thrown at someone with force. People sit and lie down the way they would on land. I did consider the option of there being some air spaces, but the only one mentioned is in the great hall, and would be above the action. A spoofy story might get away with this, but it doesn’t work when there’s an attempt at realism.

A lot of animal references are thrown in to make it sound more underwatery. This came across as superficial, rather than the way someone who lived in the water would speak. They were mainly restricted to commonly known species, rather than showing a knowledge that goes beyond what the average land person would know. Some of them also didn’t really fit the setting. For example, the simile “as fast as a zebra fish”. Zebra fish usually refers to zebra danios, which are indeed known for fast speed and darting movements. Zebra danios are tropical freshwater fish. The most likely saltwater fish are lionfish, known for their fancy fins and being venomous. These are also tropical fish. Neither really fits well into an arctic setting, and the fast-moving one is a fish merfolk wouldn’t have seen.

Merfolk culture is a restrictive patriarchy with binary gender roles. Young mermaids are rated on their fertility and considered broken if they’re infertile. The mermaids lay eggs, but the social and biological implications of that aren’t really considered. This is another time when things felt more like they took place on land, as the eggs are incubated more like bird eggs, rather than fish eggs. One of the big issues underwater is eggs rotting, so there are different considerations for fish nests.

Ersel is bisexual, which is one thing that isn’t seen as a problem in merfolk society. I wouldn’t say the relationships shown are particularly healthy. Havamal is controlling, which is addressed. Ragna and Ersel end up attacking each other. The abusive dynamic of this isn’t really addressed. It also felt like Ragna and Ersel’s relationship was mainly physical. They don’t really talk that much nor have time to form an emotional bond. It’s more about how hot it is to kiss and have sex.

Loki is genderfluid. This fits how they’re shown in mythology, but the way this is handled is not good. Loki is not the average trickster type, who can help and hinder, and is rather morally grey. Loki is evil all the way down. They’re known as the god of lies to the merfolk and everything they do is intended to be as cruel as possible. They’re the only genderfluid character in a story filled with strict binaries, and they’re the villain attempting to harm all the binary gender folk. I also disliked the strong focus on trying to gender their body anytime they appeared. Ersel sees women as having soft curves and men as having rippling muscles, so Loki’s gender is constantly being judged by those standards. This behaviour does also suggest a person isn’t really non-binary if they don’t have a body deemed to look non-binary (or the ability to shapeshift between bodies).

The story is mixed when it comes to body positivity. Ersel is fat and that’s shown as a good thing as it keeps her warm. Fat shaming isn’t a thing in merfolk society. But when she’s a human, she suddenly has slender legs. What goes for a mermaid’s body doesn’t seem to apply for a human. There’s acceptance both of Ersel’s body changes during the story, and a character who has an amputation, but the king is said to be getting ugly on the outside to match his cruel inside. So the narrative doesn’t get away from shaming bodies when someone isn’t liked.

There are a number of mute characters, though most aren’t really explored in depth. Loki is the main one, who steals voices to replace their own. Unlike the gender issues, there are other mute characters (the people who have voices taken by Loki and one other). That means it doesn’t come across as saying all mute people want to steal voices. However, I’d still have liked more depth on some of them. One in particular only appears when convenient to the plot and could have been introduced earlier.

Outside of my worldbuilding and character issues, there were parts of the story I liked. Once it got going, with Ersel trying to beat Loki at their own games, it got a lot more interesting. It wasn’t enough to overcome the other issues for me, but it did improve a lot in the second half. It was good that Ersel’s not-like-other-girls thing is eventually addressed. She’s not actually the only one who feels restricted by the society, so she’s a lot more like other girls than she realises.

I’m tougher than most on underwater books getting being underwater right, but even without that, there were issues. The portrayal of genderfluid people as liars and the abusive relationship dynamics were not good. The setting idea was potentially interesting, and nothing stood out as a major problem with the bisexual representation, but that wasn’t enough to carry it for me. Note there are off-screen rapes and pregnancy body horror, among other darker themes.

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