It’s sad when a perfectly decent story leaves you disappointed, but that’s how I feel about this little novella. I absolutely loved Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. They were both deep and meaningful and had important things to say about accepting yourself no matter how different you are and finding your place, whether it’s in this world or another. They spoke about how adults don’t see children as their equals, and undervalue their experiences and opinions and value just because of their age.
Because I was so moved and inspired by the first two books, I was expecting some of the same from this third installment. But that’s not what I got.
One the surface, this book fit well with the rest of the series. It returned to the school setting of the first book, featured characters from the first book, and involved visiting worlds mentioned in that first book. We have a few new characters who round out our diverse cast and bring in even more representation.
Cora, our main perspective character, has been labeled “fat” her entire life. People see her and assume that she is a glutton who never gets her butt off the couch and exercises. People couldn’t be more wrong. Cora might have lost the genetic lottery when it comes to weight, but she’s a runner and a powerful swimmer. So powerful a swimmer, in fact, that her door to another world led to an aquatic realm where she found her true self in the form of a mermaid. She got caught in a current and swept back to the world of her birth, which is how she finds herself at Eleanor’s school and part of our story.
My problem with Cora was this: for someone who yearns to not be defined by her size, that is seriously all she thinks about. Wherever she is, she automatically assumes that she’s being judged because of her weight. I know this is a struggle, but it’s so unhealthy for it to be the defining characteristic within your own mind. Something you dislike about yourself or wish you could change should never be the first way you describe yourself, even to yourself.
The children at the school are all different; if they were “normal,” they wouldn’t be here. But the others don’t seem to spend as much time belittling themselves over something they can’t change as does Cora. We learn that diet and exercise don’t alter her weight; she’s simply a product of her genetics. But then we have someone like Kade, who was failed even worse by genetics when he was born female but views himself as male, who doesn’t let his physicality define him or how he views himself to nearly the extent Cora does. I don’t know why, but in my opinion she lacked the depth of characters we’ve come to know in the previous books, in large part due to her constant focus on her physical form.
Something else that bothered me was the insinuation that some doors, if not all, are found through near-death experiences, particularly suicide attempts. I feel that this is unhealthy thought to plant within the minds of readers. This series appeals to people who view themselves as outcasts and misfits, people who feel like they don’t fit as comfortably into this world as those around them. It’s an amazing thing to find yourself represented in books like these, and to see a physical representation of the mental escape you crave.
But to plant the idea that suicide might provide that escape within the minds of those whose unhappiness leaves them impressionable, even if the idea is only vaguely implied, isn’t helpful.
This is just my opinion, and others might read things differently than I did. But it’s something that bothered me.
This was a quest story, and we actually visit more worlds than we have in any of the previous books. I felt that the settings were the strength in this novella. The descriptions were lovely and transportive. But the depth of characterization present in the preceding novels wasn’t present. The prose felt like a hollow imitation of McGuire’s writing in the previous books.
On the surface, this was a fun story that was engaging and an interesting escape from the realm of normal. If this would have been written by someone else, I honestly would probably rate it higher. But McGuire created something really special with the first two novellas in her Wayward Children series, and the expectations created by those two little books were unmet in this story. She’s capable of more than this, and I hope the next installment delivers the depth and proclaims the message that were both so present in those first two novellas.
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