The cover is gorgeous, the title is perfect, and the concept— a boarding school for teenagers who visited different fantasylands via portals, and are now misfits because they can’t get back— is fantastic.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to its concept, except in lovely but brief and scattered flashes: a line, an image, a bit of dramatic irony. It was an incredibly frustrating read, because the idea was so great and every now and then it would actually be what I wanted from the idea. For one or two lines. And then it would go back to not being very good. The execution was simultaneously extremely shallow, underdeveloped, and full of uninteresting padding. (It’s a short novel, possibly technically a novella. It STILL feels both rushed and padded.)

The problem starts with the plot. The main character is Nancy, a girl who visited an Underworld and wants to go back, but whose parents are baffled by her disappearance, her return, and her insistence on wearing goth clothing. So she’s sent to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, which turns out to be a refuge for teenagers who lived a portal fantasy, then went home and are still seeking a way back. (There’s one character who doesn’t want to go back, but he’s the exception.)

The bewildered Nancy, who hates the fast, hot, bright world above and longs to return to the peace and stillness of the Halls of the Dead, is also baffled by the other teenagers, most of whom went to either some version of Fairyland or a wacky nonsense world a la Alice in Wonderland. But worse, a serial killer begins to stalk the school! Or is it one of the students!?

…what?

At least half the book consists of a poorly-executed and gruesome murder mystery. The incredibly obvious solution, which is postponed to the end of the book by the characters’ total failure to apply basic logic or make any normal investigations whatsoever like search the place, does turn out to be relevant to the concept. But I wanted to read a book that’s actually about its premise, and half the book consists of characters acting exactly like teenagers from an early slasher film, the ones pre-metafictional-awareness where they actually did stuff like know a serial killer is murdering them all one by one, hear creepy noises, and go alone into the basement. And because the characters are so flat, they seem weirdly unmoved by the slaughter of their classmates or the possibility that they might be next. So a big chunk of the story has nothing to do with the premise, is much less interesting than the premise, and is badly executed for what it is.

The parts of the book that deal with the premise are a mixed bag. All the good parts involve that, and if the whole book was like the good parts, I would have loved it. They’re mostly spoilery (Eleanor West’s heartbreaking plans for her own future; the tragic irony reveal of what was going on in one of the murder victims’ homes before and after her death) but there’s also some good lines and images involving the portal worlds. Sumi and Nancy’s conversation about masturbation was hilarious, and I was very intrigued by the little we saw of Christopher’s Dia de los Muertos world.

But they’re only snippets. We never get any solid sense of what most of the portal worlds were like. Nancy’s is the most solid, and even that is really vague and lacking in detail. It does explain for a few of the characters what drew them to specific worlds, but the explanations are mundane rather than interesting (a girl who was stereotyped as “the pretty one” got a chance to be smart) or lacking in depth (Nancy wanted stillness rather than movement. Why? The book sure isn’t saying. Other than that it had nothing to do with being asexual because that would be a stereotype.)

This premise could have either been very metafictional, or done very realistically. (It dabbles in both, but commits to neither.) Either way, developing the portal worlds more would have been a good idea. For metafiction, I would have loved interstitial chapters set in various portal worlds, done in different styles, so, say, Sumi gets a chapter written in the style of Lewis Carroll, Nancy gets in the style of Tanith Lee, and so forth. For a more realistic take, it would have needed more depth to both the characters and the worlds. Instead, we get a taxonomy of worlds that makes no sense (this is not helped by the characters saying it makes no sense) and is never explained, developed, or deconstructed beyond a couple lines saying maybe it’s more complicated than that. But how isn’t explained.

The characters have approximately one characteristic each, and some have zero beyond “He went to a world where everyone is skeletons.” There’s a lot of sexual and gender diversity, handled with mixed success. Nancy is asexual, resulting in several blog-like explanations of asexuality and aromanticism; a trans character has a really interesting-sounding backstory which is, of course, only given in tantalizing, undeveloped snippets.

A lot of the better-written lines, in terms of prose style, are social commentary or commentary on portal fantasy; they tend to sound clever but be nonsensical if you think about them. Most of the characters are girls, which I am all for, but this is explained by boys not being portal fantasy characters (incorrect in any era of fiction I’m aware of; there are ovewhelmingly girl-dominated fantasy genres but portal fantasy isn’t one) and society paying more attention to and caring more about boys so they’re not allowed to explore alone the way girls are (WHAT?) and people notice when they go missing (except everyone noticed when the girls went missing.) Sounds cool and feminist, does not match either reality or what is actually depicted on the book.

And while I’m complaining about metafiction, it kept seeming weird to me that so many characters went to childish nonsense worlds as teenagers, when in real fiction that’s a children’s book rather than YA thing, and so few went to darker worlds and most of the teenagers disapproved of that, when vampires and other dark elements are common in YA fantasy and in real life, teenagers are often into dark stuff.

In short, the book frustrated the hell out of me; I will probably buy at least one of the sequels to see if I like it better (probably not, I think I’m just not McGuire’s audience; I really disliked Rosemary and Rue) because the concept is so cool and I’m curious to see if a sequel will be more about the concept. If it has another murder mystery, I’m done.

Spoilers OK in comments.

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)

ETA: Short story by Jo Walton that goes into similar themes. It also doesn't get into detail about the fantasy world, but it feels like the right level of detail for a short story. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2000/20001023/relentlessly_mundane.shtml
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mme_hardy: White rose (Default)

From: [personal profile] mme_hardy


This sounds maddening. I would really love to read the book you envision.

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recessional: a small blue-paisley teapot with a blue mug (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


and society paying more attention to and caring more about boys so they’re not allowed to explore alone the way girls are (WHAT?)

. . . yeah wait what?

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sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Ha. I was already planning to give this one a pass (or at least wait 'til I can get it from the library) because, while I agree that the basic premise is a brilliant bit of high concept, it's also one that -- while I absolutely believe it's true of a lot of people -- is very much NOT true for me: if I were going to want an escape from my everyday life as a child, a world where things are EVEN MORE dangerous, full of arbitrary and semi-nonsensical magical rules, would not be that place. Not that I didn't like portal fantasy as a child, I liked it fine; it's just that the idea that kids who've been in portal worlds always want to go back is one I don't relate to all that well. I enjoyed reading about Narnia or whatever, I loved writing my own versions, but I really didn't want to live there. (Though I do suspect that I might have been all over the idea of moving into a sci-fi portal universe, provided it wasn't currently going through a war or an alien invasion or something, because the rules make sense. Which says a lot about the kind of kid I was, I guess. tbh, my favorite character in Narnia as a child was Susan, in part because I related hard to big-sister characters, but also precisely because she grew up and moved on, though I think I realized even as a child that I really wasn't supposed to be having that reaction.)

And it's not like I couldn't enjoy the book even without having had the specific experience that it's clearly in dialogue with (having read portal fantasy and feeling for the children who can't go back) ... but that sounds incredibly frustrating for ANY reader! I love your idea of the pastiche version.

It's also a relief that I'm not the only person who bounces off McGuire. (I did read most of the October Daye series, but with steadily increasing levels of frustration.) And the problems I have with her books are very much like the ones you describe. The mysteries are badly plotted and rely largely on characters being idiots (the book that almost made me stop reading the October Daye series, though inexplicably I persisted, involved the characters being hunted by a serial killer in a place they could leave simply by walking out the door, BUT THEY NEVER DID, even as the body count mounted), thin worldbuilding, complex issues addressed in a Tumblr-ishly simplistic kind of way, etc.

Also, a special wtf to boys never going to portal worlds because of not being allowed to play unsupervised. Just, what.

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vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)

From: [personal profile] vass

(spoilers)


What did you think of what happened to Nancy?

I'm still trying to decide what I think, and whether I'm okay with it.

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potted_music: (Default)

From: [personal profile] potted_music


THIS. I was very frustrated with the novella, but never had the patience to lay my frustrations out so succinctly. Thank you for writing this post.

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sovay: (Rotwang)

From: [personal profile] sovay


But I wanted to read a book that’s actually about its premise

It's not the same premise as McGuire's novel, but I did write a post-portal short story once: "On the Blindside."

[edit] In the time since I left this window open, I see you are already receiving recommendations for other stories!
Edited Date: 2016-08-13 09:40 pm (UTC)
muccamukk: Joe raising a glass and looking sardonic.Text: Sure, pal. Whatever you say. (HL: Whatever You Say)

From: [personal profile] muccamukk


I think I'm another one of those people who just isn't the target. I've always gone into these books going, "oh! cool concept!" and then come away really loving snippets and otherwise going felling let down and muttering about how that's not how any of this works.
owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)

From: [personal profile] owlectomy


I am mildly irritated at the cross-pollination between urban fantasy and thrillers because every so often I run into one of these books where I just want to yell "Why in God's name does this story need a SERIAL KILLER in it?" - um. It's not that I hate serial killer stories (I like Criminal Minds), but there are so many different and more original places you could go with this premise besides "serial killer"!

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cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)

From: [personal profile] cyphomandra


I have been eyeing this up because I LOVE the concept but I have also bounced off McGuire previously, so this is helpful (also, I totally agree with your serial killer amendment protocol).

I know they get a lot of flack, and I am not going to defend the first trilogy, but the second chronicles of Thomas Covenant actually worked really well for me as a complication of portal fantasy - he goes back, but it's four thousand years later and almost everything he loved about the Land is gone or, worse, distorted. However, he goes with another character from our world - Linden Avery - and for her, it's new and exciting, and a completely different experience, and the magical skills she gains by being there are actively helpful while Covenant's have also been warped to destruction. Linden herself is a great character and meant a lot to me as a teenager.

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kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


Yeah, the setup was really interesting, but the murder mystery was gory, gratuitous and non-mysterious. Reading books like that, it always strikes me that it's a pity so many genre writers seem to think "something HAS to happen, there has to be a PLOT," because there was a lot of stuff there for developing and the murder plot felt totally pasted on.
Edited Date: 2016-08-14 09:38 am (UTC)

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laceblade: fanart of Ohana turning to look beyond viewer. Coloring blue/moody. (Hanasaku Iroha: Ohana)

From: [personal profile] laceblade


I casually read McGuire's October Daye & Incryptid series, but moreso by inertia than anything else. I'd hoped that this novella might be different - maybe the series were rushed to pay the bills & she was starting to sink her teeth into more ambitious writing projects?

But, no.

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coffeeandink: (Default)

From: [personal profile] coffeeandink


I had pretty much your reaction to this. The little fragments of the fantasy worlds were so great!

Unrelated to McGuire: Have you heard of Foz Meadows' An Accident of Stars? I haven't read it, but it's an adult portal fantasy that just came out, so I thought you might like to try it.

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ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid


I read it a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed some bits, but was underwhelmed, and I generally do like Seanan McGuire's work.

Sumi got me thinking about Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls, the sort of over the top characters who are bright and quirky and occasionally murderous and who always say what they're thinking out loud, even when it doesn't make any sense. Sumi isn't murderous, but I can think of two similar characters in the Mira Grant books.
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] staranise


From listening to her music, I know that it's a character type she really, really loves, that makes up (or made up, when she was primarily a musician) a big part of her public persona.

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From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_profiterole_/


Interesting review! Someone on my flist just told me very positive things about this book, but she is, as most people, a fan of Seanan McGuire's works. I have read the first 6 books of October Daye, and it should have totally been my thing, but I found it too depressing and it kept frustrating me. So it's very likely that my opinion on this new book, which also seems tempting to me, would be the same as yours.

I read a very interesting portal fantasy trilogy recently: Parallel Parks.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Oh, wow, thanks for the rec! I missed your review and never even heard of that book, but it sounds right up my alley.

People told me the October Daye series improved, but I was so put off by the first that I didn't continue. Based on those two, McGuire has really great ideas, but the issues I have with her actual books are deal-breakers for me in general: aggressively flat characterization, everyone is an idiot to make the plot work, people do stuff no human being would ever do to make the plot work, and a failure to focus on her ideas (which I like) in favor of some cliched plot that I could read anywhere and isn't even done well.

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From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


An extreme fan of her work told me to skip this one, because I'd thought it sounded great. So I did skip it.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I am pretty sure you'd have the exact same issues I did. Only the lack of worldbuilding might annoy you even more than it annoyed me.

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From: [identity profile] laleia.livejournal.com


I liked the book! But ... definitely not as much as I thought I would. When I heard the premise, I thought it sounded completely up my alley - my favorite fanfic premise is when characters who went to a portal fantasy world came back then have to deal with the resulting consequences. I've always liked the idea of people who once did something extraordinary now having to hide it or move past it. (One of my favorite fic tropes is secret backstories, secret histories, secret identities, etc.) If done the specific way I wanted it done in my head, it could have been my favorite book of all time.

Then I read the book and while it did some interesting things, it did not do thing as interestingly as I thought it would, and it did not do them in the same ways I thought it would. It didn't actually have any of the tropes that I was interested in, and tonally went weirder/more meta than I had expected (I usually can appreciate weird/meta, but do't enjoy it as much as a good read), but as you said, it was also not weird/meta enough to make me think I was reading something especially novel/interesting.

I still enjoyed it overall (I think particularly because I'd recently read The Magicians and hated it and expected this to be something of a palate cleanser, and it was definitely better than that).

If you wanted to get Seanan Mcguire another chance, I enjoyed her Incryptid urban fantasy series (if you enjoy straight urban fantasy) much better than Rosemary and Rue, and my enjoyment of that series was the reason I gave her Toby Daye books another chance after I DNF'd the first time I tried. But it may depend on why you didn't like Rosemary and Rue (because I do think the books are similar stylistically, it's just that Discount Armageddon comes off as a little happier ...)

From: [identity profile] neery.livejournal.com


I feel like this is the sort of plot that would work so much better as a fanfic than as a trad pub book because that way you could use portal worlds the reader is already familiar with, and actually focus on the characters' experience of being back home from fantasyland without having to also do the exposition for seven different fantasylands.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That's an interesting thought. There's definitely a lot of post-portal Narnia fics. Her original worlds seemed cool, though. I specifically wanted to know more about them. But there just wasn't much. And she'd have had room for it, even in the same length, if she'd done that instead of the murder mystery.

From: [identity profile] tavella.livejournal.com


I had nearly exactly the same reactions as you. It was *such* a great concept, and there are a number of great moments that almost live up to it... and then it turns into a boring-ass not very well done murder mystery.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


It's too bad she didn't use a YA model, because a YA school-based plot can be entirely character-based and just be about relationships and self-discovery.

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From: [identity profile] tavella.livejournal.com - Date: 2016-08-14 09:15 pm (UTC) - Expand

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From: [identity profile] tavella.livejournal.com - Date: 2016-08-14 09:17 pm (UTC) - Expand

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


It sounds like she had the interesting scenario, then no idea what sort of story to tell within it--so she yanked in a totally different type of story.

You're so right that you'd have to decide early on what sort of story you'd want to tell, the meta-type or the committedly within-story type. And if it's committedly within-story, you'd have to really believe in and care about the types of other worlds your characters had gone to. As a writer, you'd have to be thinking about what the different realities represent. Why do people go to different worlds? The meta would be easier because essentially what you'd be doing (or one thing it would be very easy to do; I guess you could do other things) is literary criticism and analysis, through fiction.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


Also, what is it with defaulting to whimsical, nonsensical Alice-in-Wonderland-type worlds? That seems like something that someone who has *NO FAMILIARITY* with portal fantasies (... or fantasy, period) would do. Wonderland/Looking-glass land aren't really other worlds, anyway; they're constructs to talk about intellectual ideas [warning, Will Robinson: levels of irritation and frustration are reaching critical levesl!] **deep breaths** .... I guess it gets back to what a portal world is being asked to do.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


It is weird. The only portal fantasy explicitly referenced is Narnia, but the nonsense worlds seem clearly childish (there's one where everything is candy) and almost have to be inspired by Alice in Wonderland, as that's the model that comes to everyone's mind when you think of a fantasy world where everything seems arbitrary and incomprehensible to the protagonist. (Though, as you point out, idea-based… but Alice doesn't understand the ideas.)

A lot of the portal worlds aren't much more than "everything is [candy/skeletons/spiders/etc.]" However, McGuire is good at giving just enough evocative hints that you want to know more. But it comes across as frustrating rather than charming, because there's no detail on anything. Cool throw-aways never explained or explored are only fun when something else cool is shown in detail. Like, everyone loves Sherlock Holmes' references to cases we never see, because each story is about a case we do see.

From: [identity profile] klwilliams.livejournal.com


Yeah, that's pretty much how I felt about it, all around.

From: [identity profile] arielstarshadow.livejournal.com


I've not read this, but I do read the October books - and really, I read them in spite of the main character, and in spite of the things that frustrate me.

I suffer from wanting to like the books more than I actually do, if that makes any sense at all.

From: [identity profile] hamsterwoman.livejournal.com


Aww, I'd been hoping this might be my "third time's the charm" book that would actually make me enjoy Seanan McGuire's writing, but given the problems you had with it, and the way in which they're similar to the problems I've had with the Toby Daye books, I'm guessing probably not...

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Probably not but you should read it anyway because I would enjoy your review. ;)

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From: [identity profile] hamsterwoman.livejournal.com - Date: 2016-08-16 12:44 am (UTC) - Expand

From: [identity profile] carbonel.livejournal.com


I love portal fantasies, and I wanted to like this so much more than I actually did. It was going reasonably well up until the first murder, at which point I WTF'd. It was all downhill from there.
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