Author Seanan McGuire never fails to surprise me with the different moods and unique quality of her writing: from the emotion-laden drama of the October Daye series to the balance between seriousness and humor of the Incryptid novels to the stark dread inherent in the Newsflesh cycle she writes as Mira Grant, this author can use a wide variety of voices, making each book an engaging surprise. With the Wayward Children series McGuire delves into the realm of fairy tale, employing a language more suited to this genre, more… poetic for want of a better word, and with In An Absent Dream she reaches lyrical heights that touched me deeply and made this book the best of the series so far.
The premise at the core of the Wayward Children setting is that there are doors that open toward weird, fantastical realms, and they open only for children whose roots in our primary world are not as deep as others’: in these places they might develop their potential in a way that the “real” world would never allow them to, but sometimes – either by accident or because of homesickness – they find their way back and are unable to adjust to their old reality. For this reason the school created by Ms. West (herself once a returned child) exists to help these youngsters adapt back to our world, or find again the way back to those realms, if they are lucky, the understanding being that once the innocence of youth is lost, once the gift of wild imagination dwindles in the face of more adult responsibilities, the doors stay closed and never appear again, effectively stranding the child forever.
Katherine Lundy is the middle child of a well-to-do family, but also a lonely one: her father being the school’s principal prevents her from forming any friendship with her school mates, so she takes refuge in books and the certainties offered by the rules she loves to obey. While she’s not outwardly unhappy – at some point we see how she’s unable to even entertain the concept of unhappiness – something is indeed missing deep inside, so that when one day a door appears in a gnarled tree on her path, she turns the knob and finds herself in the colorful, unruly and wildly amazing Goblin Market, a place at the opposite side of the spectrum of her quietly ordered life. The economy, if such a term can be applied, of the Goblin Market is based on the concept of fair value, an intriguing kind of barter system which sees the people incurring in too many unpaid debts transformed into birds. Tutored by the Archivist and helped by Moon, the first real friend in Lundy’s existence, she spends a year in the Market, leaving it only in the aftermath of a tragedy. Since Lundy is still a child (her first foray happens when she’s nine years old), the rules of the Market allow her to return time and time again until her eighteenth birthday, when she will have to make the choice to either stay or go away forever. Despite realizing that only in the realm beyond the magical door she can truly be herself, she feels the pull of her original family and finds herself torn between two equally powerful claims on her commitment, knowing that either choice will mean pain and loss.
Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series is her most pathos-laden work to date, not only because young people are at the center of it and their distress feels more poignant than it would if the characters were grown-ups, but because of its focus on the need to fit in, to belong – a feeling that everyone experiences sooner or later and that is more emphasized when it concerns kids, whose coping mechanisms are far less developed than those of adults. The author reminds us often that the doors don’t manifest themselves if the children have no real need for a different world than the one they live in, but this also means that those who walk through the doors sooner or later will have to face some hard choices. This is Lundy’s case, when she goes home for the last time to say goodbye to her family: her now-grown younger sister Diana lays her claim to Lundy because she wants the sister she never had, and Lundy must choose between the family of her blood and that of her heart.
Of all the enchanted worlds shown so far in this series, the Goblin Market is the most detailed one, painted with vivid images and peopled by lively characters, the place “where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming”: where until now we only saw glimpses of other realms, here we get a living, breathing place where colors are more vibrant and smells more pervasive – and I dare anyone deny that their mouths did not water at all those mentions of fruit and meat pies that Lundy buys from the centaur baker… The Market is also a stark contrast with Lundy’s drab home life, made of distant parents and a painful lack of friends, while the rest of the world expects her to sacrifice her drives and expectations on the altar of conformity: if her first venture into the Market is the product of accident and curiosity, the second time Lundy chooses to go there as an act of rebellion once she understands that she was “living in a world that told her, day after day after grinding, demoralizing day, that adventures were only for boys; that girls had better things to worry about, like making sure those same boys had a safe harbor to come home to”.
Choosing to follow the calling of her heart and dwell forever in the Goblin Market, Lundy will have to sacrifice her sister Diana’s happiness, her desire to get to know the sister she knew she had but never had a chance to share her life with; on the other hand, choosing to follow the call of blood, Lundy will have to sacrifice herself – her dreams, her hopes, her true being. Here the starkest meaning of fair value comes to the fore with dramatic clarity, because it stresses the difference between wanting and needing, and as the Archivist told Lundy once, “When you need, it’s important that the people around you not be looking to take advantage”. And having to choose between wanting and needing can tear a person apart…
Poignant, heart-wrenching and powerfully evocative, In An Absent Dream is one of Seanan McGuire’s strongest offerings to date, and a very recommended reading.