2016’s Nebula and Hugo-winning Every Heart a Doorway is the first volume in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series.
Children through the ages have stepped through doors to other lands. Some, like Nancy, return — only to find themselves rejected by families unable to accept what their children have become. A lucky few, like Nancy, find their way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
Eleanor West was once herself one of the lost children, a traveller between realms (something she does not tell parents and guardians). She promises guardians a cure for their odd changeling (she lies). Instead, West hopes to give each child what they need to make happy lives for themselves in a world intolerant of strangeness.
Dumped on West by frustrated parents, Nancy finds herself surrounded by fellow castaways. None of them have ever visited a world quite like the one in which Nancy lived, but all of them are touched by strangeness. Nancy has more common ground with them than she could ever have had with her parents. It’s not the life Nancy would have chosen but at least it’s a life. She can live in hope, as so many of the students do, that one day she will rediscover the door back to her lost fantasy world.
And then the brutal murders begin.
It turns out that touring various enchanted kingdoms is not a reliable basis for a career as a detective. As collections of school kids turned amateur detectives go, Nancy and her friends are no Famous Five1 or even Kalle Blomkvist. Of course, even the waywards who landed in worlds ruled by Holmesian logic might have come up short, because not every killer commits their crimes for entirely rational reasons.
Crimes drive the plot, but solving them isn’t really the focus of the book. It focuses, rather, on the community of the unusual that the center has become. Many of West’s wards would have had a hard time fitting into the mundane world even if they had not had their little adventures under the hill. West eschews trying to force square pegs into round holes in favour of trying to help the kids find lives for which they are suited. No doubt the guardians would be affronted if they learned their kids weren’t going to be ticky-tackied into conformity. Which is why West does not share that information.
The trauma every child shares is having once lived in a fantasy realm uniquely suited to them, a paradise from which they were eventually ejected (a foreshadowing of later rejection by the mundane world). It’s unfortunately that asexual Nancy’s perfect world was the Realm of the Dead. The author could have selected any world for Nancy, so it’s a pity she selected one whose subtext is that Nancy is best off as a corpse. This was a story-killer … for me. This book won the 2017 Hugo, so presumably this plot choice did not bother other readers.
1: It wouldn’t be all that surprising to encounter Julian, Dick, Anne, and George (plus George’s dog Timmy) at West’s school. The Five had twenty-one adventures over as many years without ever aging significantly. Many detective stories are far more plausible when one realizes that the detectives must be fae or changelings playing at being rational humans.