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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.

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

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The third book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, is in some ways a return to the beginning. The plot kicks off when timey-wimey shenanigans result in the character Sumi having a daughter, Rini—despite Sumi having been murdered in the first book, before ever having conceived a child. But reality is catching up to Rini, and she’s gradually fading away. Unless a group of students from Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children can somehow restore Sumi to life, Rini will disappear forever.

Kade and Christopher, two of the side characters from Every Heart a Doorway, take their place in the spotlight here. McGuire also introduces us to new characters, and with them, new worlds. The dimensions to which the Wayward Children travel have always been almost characters in their own right, and the latest installment gives us more insight into how they work. The terms used to categorize the worlds, such as Logic and Nonsense, aren’t just descriptors. They have real weight, and we see the difficulties a character attuned to a Logical world faces in moving through a Nonsense one. Moreover, some worlds are metaphysically closer to each other than others. Christopher, whose doorway took him to an Underworld, feels almost—but not quite—at home in a different Underworld that the characters pass through in their quest to rescue Sumi.

Belonging is one of the major themes of the Wayward Children series. The children stay at Eleanor West’s school because it’s the one place where their experiences will be affirmed. Sometimes, it’s just as much of a struggle for them to receive validation of the more mundane aspects of their identities. Every Heart a Doorway introduced us to Kade, a transgender boy who was forcibly returned to the “real” world when the all-female society of his otherworld rejected him. Nancy, in the same book, faced widespread incomprehension of her asexuality. Beneath the Sugar Sky gives us Cora, an overweight girl who also happened to be a mermaid in her otherworld. Her fear that others will react negatively to her weight pervades many of her experiences, from cramming into the backseat of a car to traveling through Rini’s Candyland-esque native reality. Seeing her find acceptance among the other Wayward Children was heartwarming.

A fourth installment in the series, In an Absent Dream, is already out, and a fifth, Come Tumbling Down, is scheduled for a January 2020 release. I’m hoping we’ll see more of Cora and Rini in these stories, as well as the more-established characters.

“Down Among the Sticks and Bones” by Seanan McGuire

Among the many fascinating characters in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, readers were introduced to the twins Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill (Jillian). In her new novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, McGuire tells us about the parallel world in which Jack and Jill spent several years of their childhoods.

In Every Heart a Doorway, we first meet the characters after they’ve already journeyed to other worlds. Sticks and Bones shows us what a couple of those children were like before that experience and raises questions about why the doors appear for the children they do. It also gives us a more in-depth look at one of those worlds. We learned a bit about the cosmology of the setting and the general categories into which worlds can fall in Every Heart; here we see what some of that means in an “on the ground” perspective. I also found it interesting to see what the inhabitants of the parallel worlds think of the doors and the children who occasionally come through them.

While it does a lot to expand the universe of Every Heart, the new novella stands on its own as well. The world is well-constructed, and I loved its use of horror movie tropes. The characters we meet there are compelling, as is the changing relationship between the two sisters. The climax of the story was exciting, but at the same time, I didn’t want to reach it because I didn’t want the story to be over.

The next story in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, will be dealing with a very different secondary world. I’m hoping that it will be rendered with the same vividness as the setting in this novella was.

“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and its sequels have been described as “Harry Potter for grownups.” Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, might similarly be described as “The Chronicles of Narnia for grownups.” It features a school for children who, like the Pevensies, went through doorways into other worlds. But the focus of the story isn’t on the childrens’ adventures in those other worlds; it’s on what happened to them after they got back. Their belief in the reality of those realms didn’t fade as they grew older, and so their parents came to believe that they were suffering from a psychiatric disorder. The school masquerades as a mental health facility; what it truly is, is a place where children who’ve been to otherworldly realms can be surrounded by people who understand and believe them.

The book is short (almost a novella) and a fast read; despite that, it takes the time to present strong world-building and characterization. The worlds that the main characters have been to are wildly different, and some of the returnees have mapped out a system of categorization for these worlds. The story also presents an intriguing chicken-and-egg dilemma: are particular children drawn to certain realms because of their personalities and traits, or are their personalities shaped by the dimensions they visit?

The story has a strong emotional core as well. Many of the characters felt more at home in the alternate worlds than they do in the “real” one, and McGuire writes poignantly about their longing for those other places and their frustration at not being believed about their experiences there.

This is all further complicated when one of the students is murdered. The mystery aspect of the plot is well-written for the most part, although I did find the final confrontation with the murderer to be a bit anticlimactic. The characters certainly faced challenges in identifying and tracking down the murderer, but they seemed to apprehend the perpetrator too easily.

This is the first book in a planned Wayward Children duology. The second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is due to be published in June 2017, and I definitely plan to read it.