Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #7
Published by Tordotcom on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you've already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.
There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. And it isn't as safe.
When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn't save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.
She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...
We were introduced to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway. The children aren’t “wayward” in the way that the word is usually meant. Rather, the children who come to the school, like Eleanor West herself, once upon a time opened a door from our world to another – a place their hearts called home.
They come to Eleanor after they, like she, found their way, or were forced or pushed or stumbled, back to the world they were born in, will they or nil they. It’s usually nil. Whatever world they went to, they’ve been gone a long time from their young perspectives, have grown and changed and adapted to their new circumstances in ways that don’t fit in the old ones.
They’ve left our world as children and come back as teenagers. They left as dependent children and come back after having been forced to look after themselves. They left as innocents and come back with experience that no one believes.
Their parents desperately want them to be “normal” again, unable or unwilling to recognize that they ARE normal for the life they led on the other side of their door.
The lucky ones find themselves at Eleanor West’s, a place where their experience is accepted as having been real – even if their hope for return to it is seen as extremely unlikely at best. Eleanor West gives them the chance, not so much to accept that they’re stuck as to find a way to live with their situation rather than pretend that it never happened.
Not all of the children are lucky enough to end up at Eleanor West’s Home. Some of them end up in psychiatric institutions, and/or drunk or drugged into insensibility, whether by themselves or others.
And some of them end up someplace worse. They get sent to the Whitethorn Institute. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the Whitethorn Institute is that opposing reaction to Eleanor West’s. In every possible way.
Cora Miller, whom we met in Beneath a Sugar Sky and whose story continues in Come Tumbling Down (which I haven’t read and I seriously need to!) feels like the Drowned Gods she invoked in that second adventure have followed her back to Miss West’s. And that they’re coming for her.
In desperation, Cora turns to the one place where belief in the doors and the worlds on the other side of them is ruthlessly suppressed. She believes it’s done with the power of science and cold, hard logic. So she commits herself to the Whitethorn Institute in the hope that they will cure her of her longing for the worlds behind the doors – and of their hunger for her.
What she finds is something else altogether. And it’s just as hungry for her and her power as the Drowned Gods ever were.
Escape Rating A-: Where the Drowned Girls Go, at least so far, was the hardest read in this series. Not that any of them are easy, because much of the series is about accepting yourself for who and what you are, and finding a family that will accept you as the person you are and not the person they want you to be.
Overall, it’s a series about diversity and acceptance. That means two things. One, that it explores all types of diversity, not just race – actually not explicitly race at all – but rather the way that people don’t fit into stereotypical boxes at all and learning to celebrate those differences.
What makes this a particularly hard read is that the way the story showcases that acceptance is by first showing its lack – in intense and painful detail. Cora is already outside the box labeled “normal” because she came through a door. She’s asexual due to a birth anomaly. And she’s built tall and strong and plump, because she lived in water worlds where those were survival traits. And none of them are what girls in this world are supposed to be.
She’s already internalized the messages for girls to be “girly”, flirty and tiny and weak and thin, and has a lot of self-hatred because she’s none of the above. The Whitethorn Institute encourages the children in its dubious “care” to show the worst of themselves, so Cora is bullied and teased for being different – in addition to everything else that’s wrong at Whitethorn.
It starts out being a school where the mean girls seem to be pampered princesses and everyone else is either under their thumbs or outcast. It’s an environment that was hard to take before Cora starts digging deeper into just how wrong things really are.
The Institute’s methods are cruel and repressive, forcing the children to lie to themselves and each other about their experiences, punishing transgression and nonconformity through bullying, and as Cora discovers, using the magic of the doorways to suppress individuality and identity. Cora has a choice to make, to let herself be lost or to be a hero one more time.
And that’s the point where things finally start looking up. Because that’s where the adventure aspect of the series kicks in, when Cora accepts that she can’t do it all alone and that she needs her friends from Miss West’s to help her get to the bottom of a situation that is way too big for one girl to solve alone.
Which is part of the message of the whole series. None of the stories so far have been just one person’s story. These are stories about accepting people for who they are, and learning to accept oneself the same. They’re adventures that require friends and found family to come out the other side, whole as part of a greater whole.
While this particular entry in the series turned out to be an unexpected readalike for A Spindle Splintered, the whole series interweaves back and forth in ways that make a bit of mockery of any concept of reading order and downright encourage readers to rove from book to book, from door to door, and back again.
I read Where the Drowned Girls Go in the middle of my exploration of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. I started with the first book first, Every Heart a Doorway, Then book 6, Across the Green Grass Fields (Cora finds the heroine of that story at Whitethorn’s), then this book, and finally books 2 and 3, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky.
The next book in this series, Lost in the Moment and Found, won’t be found on bookshelves and ereaders until a whole, entire year from now, so I’m lucky I still have In an Absent Dream and Come Tumbling Down to look forward to!