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“In an Absent Dream” by Seanan McGuire

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Despite their differences in setting and tone, In an Absent Dream could almost be a companion piece to another Seanan McGuire novella (written as Mira Grant), In the Shadow of Spindrift House. Both force their protagonists to make heart-wrenching choices between their biological and found families. The similarity of theme made reading both pieces in quick succession an interesting exercise.

The latest installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series, In an Absent Dream chronicles young Lundy’s time in the Goblin Market. The Market is centered on the notion of “fair value.” Everything runs on a barter system, and those who try to cheat a transactional partner face magical punishment. Because the concept of “fair value” is so important to the story, it says some interesting things about economics. An authority figure in the Market explains that the price that’s considered “fair value” isn’t the same for everyone—in part, it depends on how much the person had to start with. She uses the example of a vendor demanding a single ribbon in payment both from a person with ten ribbons and from a person with only one. This, she says, is unfair because the proportional cost for one person is so much greater than the other. At first, this seems to make sense, but with a little more thought, it’s easy to see how it could become exploitative. The inhabitants of the Market never show any bias with regard to gender, skin tone, or even species. But in the real world, one could imagine a vendor charging more to members of a disfavored minority. So which way is truly fairer?

McGuire makes an interesting choice in how she describes Lundy’s adventures in the Market. The people in the Market itself are either friendly or indifferent to Lundy. However, the Market seems to exist in a larger world, in which there are some perils. We’re told about Lundy fighting the Wasp Queen, who’s taken up residence in an outlying area. But we don’t see this battle. A later fight with a different adversary similarly takes place off-screen. This is clearly a deliberate choice on McGuire’s part. While Lundy thinks of her trips to the Market as adventures, the parts of them that fall into the traditional definition of that word are pushed to the side of the narrative. The really important things are the development of Lundy’s friendship with Moon, her growing understanding of the Market’s rules, and the various bargains she makes. In keeping with that, physical danger isn’t the greatest menace Lundy faces. This mostly works, although I feel the emotional resonance of Lundy losing a friend in the battle with the Wasp Queen would have been stronger if we’d seen that friend in the immediate narrative as we do with characters like Moon and the Archivist.

In an Absent Dream is another great entry in a stellar series. The next book, Come Tumbling Down, is due out early next year. I get the impression it’s intended to be climactic, and I’m wondering if it’s going to be the last volume in the series. I hope not, but even if the journey ends here, I’ll be happy to have taken it.

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