by Seanan McGuire
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.
I so wanted to love this and I just couldn't. I'm a big fan of Seanan McGuire; she also writes under the name Mira Grant, and is therefore the author of one of my favourite all-time books, Feed, and a horror novella I really enjoyed, Rolling in the Deep. I was excited to check out another of her novellas and the premise sounded fantastic: the idea of a boarding school especially for children who have fallen through doors into fantastical worlds, such as Narnia or Wonderland, and have then been spat back out sounded right up my street.
The amount of different worlds and the detail in them that McGuire creates, and in so few words, is enchanting; the story of Loriel, one of the many side characters, and her world completely broke my heart and I don't think I'll be able to stop thinking about it for a while. I also really appreciated that our protagonist, Nancy, is asexual and identifies herself as such within the text: the words 'I am asexual' are actually used, which is super refreshing when so many authors choose to allude to diversity instead of outright saying it.
And that's about where my appreciation for this novella ends, and I hate admitting that when I love McGuire so much.
Shortly after Nancy's arrival at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the story turns into a murder mystery as students start getting killed off; what could have been a clever juxtaposition between whimsy and horror just felt jarring, and I spent the entire novella thinking one thing: why? Why now? Why isn't more done? Why does no one figure it out sooner?
The book's only short, but I still figured out who the culprit was long before it was revealed because, without wanting to sound like a douche, I thought it was obvious who it was going to be. I could have lived with that if it weren't also for the fact that I even guessed why they were doing it, which is often more fun than figuring out the who in a whodunnit, and that everything else made such little sense.
For example, the authorities don't get involved. Now I'm all for younger people trying to solve mysteries, but when it's the younger people themselves getting killed and their headteacher's response is 'eh, just stay in pairs, kids - we don't wanna get shut down!' it steps from the realms of suspending your disbelief to plain old disbelief. I understand they don't want the school to be shut down, I even understand why they don't want the school to be shut down, but what I don't understand is why the school's headmistress leaves the mystery to her students to solve when they're the ones in the most danger. Seriously, the woman does very little to actually solve the mystery.
There also doesn't appear to be any real reason for the murders to start happening once our protagonist arrives. Sorry if I just spoiled the story for you if you were thinking our protagonist is the killer but, let's be honest, that's rarely the case! Nancy as a whole is a rather passive character. Again I don't have a problem with that, in fact I like the idea of a protagonist who isn't a Katniss Everdeen or a Hermione Granger, but a passive heroine still needs to be an engaging heroine and Nancy just wasn't that for me.
I loved the premise of this so much, but the more I read the lower my rating became as the story seemed to lose its otherness that made it so enchanting in those first few pages. I got the feeling the murder mystery was introduced because McGuire felt as though some kind of plot needed to appear to spur the story on, but I happily would have read a slow, quiet novella about these kids coming to terms with being back in the real world. I didn't need the murder mystery, and if there really had to be one I wish it hadn't been so predictable because I know McGuire can do better.
There are a lot of people out there who love this book, though, so if you're intrigued by the premise I'd still recommend checking it out - you may like it more than I did, and if you do I hope you check out more of McGuire's work!