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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