Every Heart A Doorway is short, but there is really quite a lot packed into the shorter form novella here. It's a murder mystery, in addition to being a meditation on what happens to those children who go through doors to magical lands, and an examination of the hierarchies of outsiderdom. That this book doesn't feel like it's giving short shrift to any of those is really quite remarkable, and I'd strongly recommend this to anyone - it's not going to take you long to read, and there is some treasure here.
For the plot, Nancy has recently returned to the “real” world from her particular world of mystery and magic - in her case, an underworld that placed great value on stillness and silence. Her parents worry about her, and she is packed off to a boarding school to recover, a place where they’re assured she’ll find herself after whatever trauma she had experienced.
It’s actually a boarding school run by Eleanor, an older woman whose door is still open, but which she can’t go through, for a number of reasons. It’s there to both reacclimatize children and young people like Nancy to the world while not asking them to deny or abjure their experiences.
Once there, we get into a catechism of other worlds, along axes of Good and Evil and Nonsense and Logic. There are more minor variations, but these categorizations are supposed to help the returned work through their experiences.
Notable, however, this mostly comes into play as we discover that even though everyone at the school has been through a similar experience (and most are desperately looking for or waiting for their door to reopen so they can go home), that does not mean that they all support each other. There is every bit of teenage hierarchy that you’d expect, as those from candy cloud Nonsense lands find those from dark and dangerous Logic Lands to be suspect. And vice versa.
The suspicion grows when Nancy’s first roommate at the school turns up dead, missing her hands. Despite common experience, most people at the school are looking for differences, for ways to prove that they alone are the ones who are worthy of a return to their lands, while the others are obviously defective. There are some subtle things worked in here about division and contempt between those who should find common ground.
There are also varieties of gender identity and sexual orientation that I haven’t seen a lot of in fantasy, and better yet, while important to the characters, these are not the only or even necessarily defining features of their personalities. Nancy is asexual, and Kade, the boy who becomes her closest friend at the school, is transgender. I’d be hesitant to say it’s well done, as I’m not part of either group represented, but from my limited perspective, it feels well done, integral without being the only thing you know about that character.
As corpses mount, we end up with only a couple of possible suspects, but at least my first guess was wrong, and the answer, when it comes, is satisfying. This is a melancholy yet joyful book, and while I may have trouble explaining exactly why I’d say that, it’s true nonetheless.