BENEATH A SUGAR SKY: MAKING SURE YOU’RE BORN

It shouldn’t be a secret that I love Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas; I’ve already written about the earlier books in the series.  I’m not alone in my love for these books, either: she won the Hugo and the Nebula for the first one, Every Heart a Doorway, and, while I didn’t read all the nominees in her categories, I can’t say she didn’t deserve to win.  

So naturally, when the latest book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, came out this week, I had to read it immediately, and I’m delighted to report that it is every bit as good as the previous two.

The premise of the series is intriguing enough by itself.  So many children walk through doors or fall through rabbit holes or walk through wardrobes and find themselves in other worlds in literature, and many of them return to this world (though some don’t).  What happens to the returnees who can’t readjust to their former lives?  How hard would it be to turn back into an ordinary teenager when you’ve been a Goblin Prince, or a mermaid, or a Queen of Narnia?  So there’s a special place for children who’ve returned reluctantly to this world and who are hoping to find their way back to the worlds where they belong: Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.  There they are believed (something they don’t experience in the real world), taken seriously, and given the opportunity to seek out the gates or doors or other ways back to the worlds they found in the past.  

Do you have to read the books in order?  No. I didn’t. I read the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before I read Every Heart a Doorway, and I had no problems following the plot or understanding the characters.  Nor do I think I would have had trouble understanding what was going on in this book if I hadn’t read the others. That said, if i’d read them in order, i would have appreciated some of the nuances of Down Among the Sticks and Bones better, so your mileage may vary.  Whichever one you start with, you’re almost certainly going to want to read the others anyway, so why not start at the beginning?

When Rini falls out of the sky and splashes into the pond at the school, her clothes melting in the water, that’s not too unusual for this school.  When she demands to see her mother, Sumi, that turns out to be a bit more of a problem, since Sumi is dead.  Worse, Sumi died here, at the school, before she ever got a chance to return to her world, get married and have a baby.  Even in the nonsense world of Confection, from which Rini came, you can’t actually exist if your mother died before you were born, and Rini is already starting to disappear, piece by piece, so her quest to get her mother back is quite urgent (her slow disappearance is much creepier than that of the main character in Back to the Future, if you’re thinking in those terms).

Fortunately for her, there are several students who are willing to help her: Christopher, who came from a world of the dead and who has the ability to pipe skeletons out of their graves, Kade, the assistant to Eleanor West and future head of the school, Nadya, an exile from an underwater world, and Cora, our protagonist, fat and unloved in this world but a mermaid and heroine in the world she’s trying to find.  Together they journey through graveyards and another world of the dead (where a character from Every Heart a Doorway managed to return), and finally to Confection itself, there to face the evil Queen of Cakes who was defeated by Sumi in the timeline where Sumi lived to return to Confection, but who is now taking over the world and reshaping it in her own image.  

One of the things Seanan McGuire does really well is worldbuilding; even though we don’t spend a lot of time in the World of the Dead, it’s vivid and real and entirely different from Confection, where we do spend a lot of time.  And Confection is both entirely logical, within its own nonsensical rules, and genuinely bizarre: seas of strawberry soda, cornfields of candy corn, buildings made of gingerbread, everything edible and everything made of sugar in one form or another, including some of the people.  The Queen of Cakes is truly disturbing and a worthy foe for Rini and the others.

You care about the characters and genuinely want to see them succeed.  Whenever someone finds his or her way back to the world he or she longs for, it’s emotionally satisfying.  Even if you’re not a fan of fantasy, give Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children a try, and I think you’ll be caught up in the world.  Or should I say worlds?

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ENTER THE DARK FAIRY TALE: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES

There are so many classic children’s stories about an ordinary child or two (or three or four) leaving the ordinary world through some extraordinary means (Alice down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, the Pevensies through the back of an ordinary seeming closet) and entering a strange and wonderful (or strange and frightening) place. Add to that collection Seanan McGuire’s new novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is sort of a prequel to her Nebula Award winning, Every Heart a Doorway.  Don’t worry, though: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway in order to appreciate and enjoy the story of Jacqueline and Jillian and their sojourn in The Moors in this book.

down among the sticks and bones

It reads like a dark fairy tale, one in which the narrator inserts herself (a little) into the narrative, commenting dryly about the events she’s describing, and while that’s not always a technique that works for me personally, in this case the narrator’s wry observations add depth to the events and the characters.

 

The fairy tale begins with classic bad fairy tale parents, the sort who don’t deserve any children.  They see their twin daughters as extensions of themselves, accessories to be paraded around before other couples in their social set, but not as human beings with their own needs and desires and thoughts.  They’d originally decided they wanted a boy (for the father) and a girl (for the mother) but when the babies were born identical twin girls, they solved the “problem” by the father’s treating Jillian as a tomboy, making her, as much as he could, like the son he wished he had, and the mother’s turning Jacqueline into the little princess she saw as the ideal daughter. Jacqueline and Jillian managed to reach the age of five without permanent damage because their paternal grandmother, Louise, came to take care of them and give them all the nurturing their cold parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, but then, of course (in classic fairy tale bad parent fashion), the parents sent Louise away in the middle of the night, telling the girls she didn’t love them anymore.

 

Imprisoned in their rigid roles and not allowed to try any other aspects of their personalities, the twins drift apart, set up as competitors rather than companions, until the rainy day when Jillian entices Jacqueline to go upstairs and explore their grandmother’s former room in the attic, and the two of them (now twelve years old) find themselves going down a stairway inside their grandmother’s trunk, ending up in the strange and dangerous world of the Moors.  There the two of them meet up with the Master, an impressive vampire who runs most of that part of the world, and Dr. Blast, a mad scientist type who’s able to bring the dead back to life, sometimes, and the girls make their choices of which one of them they want to apprentice themselves to for the rest of their time in the Moors (until the door reopens to allow them back into their world).  Their choices are surprising, based on their prior lives and what you think their personalities are, but they come to embrace their new roles, as would-be daughter to the Master and as apprentice to Dr. Blast, to the point where neither one of them really wants to return to the “real world.”  Until they are forced out, and I’m not going to tell you how they’re forced out of the Moors, except to say that it feels perfectly sensible, given what we’ve seen of the two characters and their world.

 

As a sort of fairy tale, there’s not a lot of in depth character development, but the charm of the book is in the world it creates and the people who populate it and how the fateful decisions and their consequences are depicted.  It’s a dark and sad book in its way, and now I want to read Every Heart a Doorway to see what happened next to Jack and Jill.

 

Of course, if you’re doing the 2017 Reading Challenge, this (short!) book counts as a fantasy book for one of the categories.  Just in case you couldn’t find another fantasy book (ha!).  It’s well worth reading even if you’re not doing the challenge, of course.