As anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which has already won Hugo and Nebula awards and which, to my delight, shows no signs of ending in the near future. The first book was Every Heart a Doorway, followed by the prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (review), followed by Beneath the Sugar Sky (review), and now by the newest, In An Absent Dream.
The first two books are more closely related than any of the others, but you can easily read any of them independently, or read them out of order without getting confused. The basic concept is that there’s a home for children who’ve come back to the mundane world from more fantastic places (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia), who aren’t able to forget their other worlds and long to find a doorway or other portal back. There’s an inherent poignance, as the characters have all lost something precious and not all of them are going to be able to get it back, but that uncertainty and longing gives the books their tension and suspense.
In An Absent Dream departs a little from the usual structure, in that we don’t see the Home until the very end of the book, but it’s still at heart a story of a girl who gets to escape her normal existence by traveling to and staying in another world, at least for a while.
Katherine Lundy, our protagonist, is a quiet, well-behaved, book-loving girl of six when she finds the door in the tree that leads her to the Goblin Market for the first time. Since her father is the principal of the school she attends, Katherine has no friends and few deep connections to the human world, other than her parents, her older brother who barely interacts with her at all, and her baby sister who’s hardly a person yet. So she has little reason to hesitate when she sees the sign on the door in the tree that says “Be Sure.”
She enters the Goblin Market, a world where various kinds of humans, non-humans and partial humans live and work in reasonable harmony due to the operation of the market, which keeps everything fair by making everyone follow some straightforward rules: ask for nothing; names have power, always give fair value; remember the curfew. The most important rule, it turns out, is the one about giving fair value. An uneven exchange results in debt, and too much debt can cause a person to be changed into something else (we see a couple of characters changed, partially or completely, into birds as a result of debts).
Katherine, who renames herself Lundy, meets another girl, called Moon, and Moon introduces her to the way the rules work and to the Archivist, an older woman who proves to be very important to Lundy’s future in the Goblin Market.
Lundy passes in and out of the Goblin Market a few times, and we get to know her and to see what the pull of that world is for her. The concept of fair value is fascinating, and the way the world is set up to make the transactions work is absorbing, as are the relationships between Lundy and Moon, Lundy and the Archivist, and Lundy and her family (especially her father and her sister) when she returns to this world. And all the time, the clock is ticking down to Lundy’s curfew, the time she has to decide where she really belongs and to make a commitment to that world.
Obviously, since it’s part of this series, I had a feeling all along that Lundy wasn’t going to have a happy ending in the Goblin Market, but the suspense arises from not knowing what exactly is going to happen to her and how, and knowing or guessing in advance doesn’t make the ending any less poignant.
Like all the books in the series, In an Absent Dream is short, a novella rather than a novel, and that’s good and bad. It’s good because you can (and I did) read the whole book in a day, and it’s bad because the author has to leave certain things out (what did happen when Lundy and Moon battled the Wasp Queen, and what actually happened to Mockerie?). The lack of some details really doesn’t hurt the book, but you should be prepared for a book in which you sometimes have to read between the lines and guess at things.
Reading In an Absent Dream made me both impatient for the next book in the series and wanting to reread the first three books again. It’s that good, moving, fascinating and thought provoking. If you’ve read any of the other books, I don’t need to tell you to hurry out to pick this one up and read it. If you haven’t read the series (and why not?), do yourself a favor and check out In an Absent Dream and dive into a strange world of rules and debts and an all-powerful market that makes everything “fair.”