Genre: Contemporary Fantasy/ YA Fantasy
Synopsis: Sometimes children stumble through a hidden entrance in their world into another one, and often that world is right for them in a way their own never could be. The lucky ones stay, but others come back. They could spend their lives looking for a way back to their true home, the one they’d found once by luck, trapped somewhere they know they don’t belong.
A long time ago, Miss West was one of the children who came back. Locked out of that world, she’s created a school for teenagers like she used to be, somewhere they can be with others who understand their experiences. Who understand how badly they want to go back to a place that fits them. But with longing and desperation come dangers, and not long after new student Nancy arrives, her classmates begin turning up dead…
Series: A novella that can stand alone. There is a second in the series, which serves as a prequel for two of the characters in this one.
POV: Third person.
This is a story about not fitting in, and not wanting to. It’s about how the world tries to put people into boxes, no matter how bad the fit. About that longing for understanding and acceptance.
It really resonated with me, feeling real in a way most stories focusing on outcasts don’t. It doesn’t glamorize being different and ignore the costs. It doesn’t sugarcoat. It doesn’t reserve weirdness for cis-gendered straight white guys. Instead, it shows a spectrum of different people with different experiences, none of whom are understood by the world around them. Many of whom still can’t figure out how to understand or accept each other, even knowing what it’s like to be on the other end.
All of the characters were deeply distinct, and brought different things to the table:
Nancy was quiet, still, and respectful, in a way that illustrated that this was absolutely who she was comfortable being. She knew how to fade into the background, and could do it deliberately or instinctively. The way her parents refused to understand and accept who she’d become is painful, and illustrates how people can do damage with the best intentions.
I related to Nancy for a number of reasons. One was not wanting to be the center of attention. Another was her asexuality. Her experience on the spectrum is different than mine, which is unsurprising given how wide the spectrum ranges, but I liked that the story included some acknowledgement on the complexity of sexual versus romantic attraction.
Jack is the mad scientist who went to a world that resembled a horror movie and apprenticed herself to another mad doctor. She’s blasé about blood and death and violence, with a penchant for saying some genuinely disturbing things in public. And yet, it’s hard to peg down her morality so easily. Is she the mad doctor who places curiosity ahead of reverence for life? Or is every disturbing thing she says or does really about acquiring the knowledge to save more lives? And if so, is it worth it? The complexity and vividness of her character is really cool, and she’s an absolute standout.
Kade is conscientious, likable, and responsible. He’s also never going to get a portal back into his world, after it threw him out for being a boy in the body of a girl when it’d wanted a girl. This school is the only home he’ll ever have, and he’s invested in protecting it. I like that despite his odd fit with the main group of protagonists (Nancy, Jack, and co. went to way more macabre worlds than he did), their differences were something that all of them generally accepted and didn’t judge each other for.
Christopher knows what it’s like to hide things to fit in, even here at a school where they were supposed to accept each other’s differences. He traveled through a world of dancing skeletons, which is a bit too creepy for most of his classmates (though still not as much as Jack’s world). Only now is he starting to find a group where he can talk about his experiences without alienating potential friends.
Sumi is always going a mile a minute, always in motion. Her mind is always racing. She wants nothing more than to go back to the world she’d made a home in, but unlike many of her classmates, accepts that she never will. Most of the things she says make a backwards kind of sense if any, as she’d traveled through a nonsense world, and she’s considered a force to be reckoned with.
Jill is Jack’s identical twin, who traveled with her to the same world, though they’re nothing alike. Where Jack apprenticed herself to a mad doctor, Jill chose to serve a vampire lord. Neither of them fully understands what drives the other, and the only thing keeping them together is how little both of them fit in with anyone else.
This was a wonderful story. Seanan McGuire was already one of my favorite authors, but of all the work I’ve read by her (and I’ve read a lot), this has to be the one that delves most deeply into conformity versus individuality. Into how hard acceptance is to find for yourself, or even sometimes to give to others.
Favorite Quotes (the abridged version, because I could put half the novella here):
Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.
Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.
Most of them had been looking for smaller waists, cleaner complexions, and richer boyfriends, spurred on by a deeply ingrained self-loathing that had been manufactured for them before they were old enough to understand the kind of quicksand they were sinking in.
This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it’s you.
It was being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you.
Most of you got unicorns and misty meadows. We got the Moors, and if there was a unicorn out there, it probably ate human flesh.
You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.