There was a ton of buzz going around about this book not long ago, and understandably, given the amazing premise. A boarding school to accommodate all those kids who have wandered off into magical fairylands for a while, and help re-acclimatize them to reality? So much possibility.
Guys, it...it really squandered the premise.
After a promising setup, Every Heart A Doorway turns into "a fairly gruesome murder mystery at a school for kids with weird/magic abilities."
They don't actually have any scenes of the kids in classes, much less any "here's how to deal with reality" sequences. It's insular, almost claustrophobic -- the characters never leave the school. There's no mention of phones, Internet, pop culture, anything connected to the Real World they're supposed to be reintegrating with. Early on one of the characters mentions looking something up on Google Images before she arrived, but if it wasn't for that reference, this could've taken place any time in the past hundred years.
When the gruesome murders start, there's no police investigation, no real-world forensics, no "here's how crimes are solved in a world without magic." Even the adult authorities at the school, who are In On The Secret, don't manage the situation at all. It's just...left to the teenagers to solve on their own, with the residual supernatural talents they have from their fantasylands.
(How great would it have been to have the cops show up with all their mundane nonmagical expectations, and the teachers run interference, and it takes their combined efforts to make progress? Better yet, what if the investigative team included a former student, who could handle both aspects of the case at once?)
Without spoiling any specifics, by the end of the book, it doesn't support the idea that "learning to be part of the world you're in" is a worthwhile goal in the first place.
This in spite of the fact that some of the kids' fairyland-developed coping mechanisms...do not seem healthy. I don't mean "sensible by fairyland rules but maladapted to our-world rules," I mean generally unhealthy.
You know what series handles this really well? Star Versus The Forces Of Evil. The heroine in this case is native to magicland, studying abroad on Earth, and the show does a lovely job of exploring the nuances from "Star learns that this behavior isn't culturally appropriate for Earth" to "Star learns that this behavior is uncool anywhere."
And I've loved fanfic that explores post-magic-journey culture shock. The Pevensies struggling to balance "solving problems by breaking out our mad skills as former-adult Kings and Queens of Narnia" with "not freaking out everyone around us." Lyra and Pan having to remember to stay close together. Dorothy getting so much cross-cultural experience so young that, after a certain point, she can drop into pretty much any world and have no trouble going with the flow.
The students in Every Heart A Doorway don't get any "here's how to codeswitch to Earth-appropriate behaviors" or "wow, you're interacting with regular Earth culture really well already" or "this isn't good at all, let's learn and grow and develop as characters." They stay in their insulated setting with all the patterns they learned in other worlds going pretty much unexamined.
So much potential material here! So painfully unexplored!
People were also talking a lot, when the initial buzz was going around, about book's the asexual protagonist.
Again: cool in theory! In practice, all it seems to mean is that her narration keeps doing unnecessary and shoehorned-in detours about how totally uninterested in sex she is.
The first time it came up was fine. Awkward, but forgivable. The rest, not so much. There's a scene where she's having a friendly conversation, and suddenly goes into an internal monologue about how she's flirting, and this is fun, but she's totally uninterested in having sex with the people she flirts with. It's like she's jumping in to correct an assumption that the reader isn't making -- I hadn't even realized she was supposed to be flirting in the first place.
The scene that struck me the most is: she's admiring the beauty of a male classmate, and thinks all the other girls around her must feel the same, "although she was sure she was the only one whose attraction was aesthetic, not romantic."
First point: the character is not aromantic. (She says so. In those words.) It's possible to feel romantic attraction in general, and not specifically feel it toward this guy. For her. But...not for literally anyone else?
Second point: why does she think there are no lesbians at this school? Why doesn't it occur to her that some people are aromantic? Why does she show zero awareness that even straight girls (and bi/pan girls, although I'm not sure she realizes those exist either) don't have to feel attracted to every boy in existence?
Is she just supposed to be really blinkered and self-centered, as a character flaw? Maybe, but I never felt like the narrative saw her that way.
Is it a "the lady doth protest too much" situation, where she is falling in love with the guy, and is aggressively denying/projecting to avoid facing the idea? Also possible, but has Unfortunate Implications for the way her asexuality is established by repeating "and she totally wasn't sexually attracted to people, nope, not at all."
The book is really weird about gender. Most of the students are girls (a couple hundred of them, to a grand total of 5 boys), and this is explained as a result of socialization and sexism and boys not wandering off as easily without getting noticed.
Which...doesn't track with the genre it's supposed to be commenting on. At all.
For every Lucy and Susan, there's a Peter and Edmund. For every Alice through the looking-glass, there's a Milo in a phantom tollbooth. Wendy Darling disappeared with both of her brothers in tow, and that's not even counting Peter and the Lost Boys. Dorothy, Betsy Bobbin, and Trot are balanced out by Button-Bright and Zeb. Lyra had her Will. I could go on.
On top of that, this main group of characters ends up including 2 of the boys (along with maybe 4 girls).
Why establish a mostly-female setting if you're then going to overrepresent the male characters that dramatically? Why not just have a roughly-gender-balanced school in the first place?
And it manages to wring a heck of a lot of heterosexuality out of this casting. Every major female character mentions having a male love interest in whatever fantasy world she wandered into. One of the boys basically wandered into Halloweentown and had a romance with a skeleton...very specifically a girl skeleton. I already mentioned the ace girl's weird obliviousness to the possibility of gay people. And the only flirting we see between students is m/f.
The aforementioned super-beautiful boy is trans. Which is nice! And the subject is handled more naturally than the asexuality. Doubly nice.
But in some ways that only makes the broader context weirder. If there's a setting where nobody is explicitly LGBT, it's easy to read that as "underneath the veneer of everyone politely ignoring the topic, people are still LGBT at the average rate."
Here, the author wants to have explicit representation! But it's like...she made one of her boys trans, and one of her girls ace, and then just...stopped. Without considering the idea of LGBT people existing generally. In background characters. In sidelong references. In the concept of female characters other than the heroine who aren't into a hot guy.
At least it was short? I blew through the whole audiobook in a single work day, so the disappointing aspects weren't dragged out for long.
But seriously, there were a lot of disappointments. And now I'm worried there are people writing better versions of the premise but getting shot down as ripoffs, or getting publishing deals but no hype because all the "what a cool, unusual premise!" posts have been done.
...Does anyone have recs? I'll also take recs for your favorite culture-shock fics of existing portal-fantasy series. Anything that takes this book's premise and actually, wholeheartedly, runs with it.