In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire: Another Wayward Child’s story — magical, enchanting, heartbreaking. You know the drill.

In an Absent DreamIn an Absent Dream

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #4

Hardcover, 204 pg.
Tor Books, 2018
Read: January 9, 2019

           …the worst she was ever called where anyone might here was “teacher’s pet,” which she took, not as an insult, but rather as a statement of fact. She was Katherine, she was the teacher’s pet, and when she grew up, she was going to be a librarian, because she couldn’t imagine knowing there was a job that was all about books and not wanting to do it.

Here’s a quick recap of this series for those of you who haven’t heard about it yet/have ignored everything I’ve said about the series these last few years: Imagine Children who go off to a magical kingdom for a bit from our world — Narnia, Fillory, the Lands Beyond, Neverland, Lyrian, whatever you call that land on the other side of the fourteenth door in Coraline, etc. — and then return home. Some will go on to live “normal” lives — others can’t forget or outgrow their attachment to the magical world — some of those, those who want more than anything to return to whatever was on the other side of the door wind up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This series is about some of those children.

There’s a basic outline to these books — McGuire introduces you to a Child and a new world. Her language will be lyrical, playful and enchanting. She’ll draw you in with the awe and wonder and while you’re not looking, she’ll set the hook, and you will be as emotionally tied to her characters as you are close family members*. Then something devastating will happen to those characters, and you will feel horrible, yet love the experience. No matter what kind of resolution is found in the book (death, rescue, brokenness), when you close the book you’ll almost instantly start waiting until the next book comes out, because McGuire is just that good.

In this book we meet Katherine — Katherine’s never been good at making friends her age (there are justifiable reasons for this), but she likes talking to adults more, she likes rules, and she loves reading. There’s something about each Wayward Child that readers can identify with, but Katherine is more relatable to readers than the others have been. One day, Katherine comes upon a tree that hadn’t been there before. This tree had a door in it, and before she realized what was happening — she was on the other side of the door, walking down a hall, on her way to a Goblin Market. In the last book, we saw a nonsense world — this is a logic world, through and through. There are rules, enforced by everyone who lives there — and somehow, by the world itself.

Unlike that (mostly) tongue-in-cheek outline above, each of these books are so different from the rest, it’s hard to compare them — so I’ll try not to. But the structure of this seems more different than the others have. So I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot than I have — I’ll just say it’s a great story, incredibly well told — and even when the narration tells you the ending is not going to be “kind”, you keep expecting/hoping/wanting for things to work out for Katherine and her loved ones.

I’ve made the ending sound bad — it’s not “happy,” but I’m not complaining, I’m not criticizing, I’m most definitely not warning a reader away. It’s the right ending for this story, it’s absolutely how things needed to go — but this is not the Feel-Good Novella of the Year. It is wonderfully written, beautifully written, imaginative, awe-inspiring, delightful, and eventually heartbreaking. McGuire’s one of the best at work today — and this is proof of it.

Yes, you can read these out-of-order — but I don’t recommend it. And hey, were talking 200 pages or less each, you’ve got time for that. You’ll be glad you did (once you stop feeling horrible)


* That might be a bit hyperbolic.

—–

5 Stars

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My Favorite Non-Crime Fiction of 2018

When I was trying to come up with a Top 10 this year, I ran into a small problem (at least for me). With 44 percent of my fiction, Crime/Thriller/Mystery novels so dominated the candidates, it’s like I read nothing else. So, I decided to split them into 2 lists — one for Crime Fiction and one for Everything Else. Not the catchiest title, I grant you, but you get what you pay for.

I do think I read some books that were technically superior than some of these — but they didn’t entertain me, or grab me emotionally the way these did. And I kinda feel bad about leaving them off. But only kind of. These are my favorites, the things that have stuck with me in a way others haven’t — not the best things I read (but there’s a good deal of overlap, too). I know I read books that are worse, too — I don’t feel bad about leaving them off.

Anyway…I say this every year, but . . . Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to my re-reading books that I’ve loved for 2 decades.

Enough blather…on to the list.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lies SleepingLies Sleeping

by Ben Aaronovitch

My original post
I’ve read all the comics (at least collected in paperback), listened to all the audiobooks, read the books at least once . . . I’m a Rivers of London/Peter Grant fan. Period. Which means two things — 1. I’m in the bag already for this series and 2. When I say that this is the best of the bunch, I know what I’m talking about. Aaronovitch writes fantastic Urban Fantasy and this is his best yet. The series has been building to this for a while, and I honestly don’t know what to expect next. Great fight/action scenes, some genuine laughs, some solid emotional moments . . . this has it all. Everything you’ve come to expect and more.

—–

5 Stars

The Fairies of SadievilleThe Fairies of Sadieville

by Alex Bledsoe

My original post
I was very excited about this book when Bledsoe announced it was the last Tufa novel. Then I never wanted it to come out — I didn’t want to say goodbye to this wonderful world he’d created. But if I have to — this is how the series should’ve gone out. It’s the best installment since the first novel — we get almost every question we had about the Tufa answered (including ones you didn’t realize you had), along with a great story. It’s just special and I’m glad I got to read this magical series.

—–

5 Stars

Dragon RoadDragon Road

by Joseph Brassey

I haven’t been able to get a post written about this — I’m not sure why. It’s superior in almost every way to the wonderful Skyfarer — the idea behind the caravan, the scope of the ship and it’s culture are more than you might think anyone has done before. A fantasy novel about wizards and warriors (and warrior wizards) in a SF setting. I had a blast reading this and I think you will, too.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Kill the Farm BoyKill the Farm Boy

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

My original post
Probably the best comedic/parody/satire fantasy since Peter David’s Sir Apropos of Nothing. The characters are fun, well-developed and pretty strange. This is a great fantasy story, it’s a great bunch of laughs, but there’s real humans and real human reactions — it’s not all laughs but enough of it is that you won’t have to work hard to thoroughly enjoy the book.

—–

4 Stars

Kings of the WyldKings of the Wyld

by Nicholas Eames
Like Dragon Road, I’ve been trying to write a post about this book for months. An epic story about brotherhood, about family, about heroism, about integrity — but at its core, it’s a story about Clay Cooper. Clay’s a good man trying to stay one. He worked really hard to get to where he is, but he has to get back on the road to help his friends’ daughter. It’s a fantastic concept and set up, with an even better follow-through by Eames. Possibly the best book I read last year — and I don’t say that lightly.

—–

5 Stars

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's FaultAll Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

by James Alan Gardner

My original post
A Superhero story, a SF story, an Urban Fantasy, a story about friendship and destiny told with just enough of a light touch to fool yourself into this being a comedy. From the great title, all the way through to the end this book delivers.

—–

4 Stars

Smoke EatersSmoke Eaters

by Sean Grigsby

My original post
I started my original post about the book like this: Really, the case for you (or anyone) reading this book is simply and convincingly made in 13 words:

Firefighters vs. Dragons in an Urban Fantasy novel set in a futuristic dystopia.

That could’ve been my entire post, and it’s all I’m going to say now.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Dark QueenDark Queen

by Faith Hunter

My original post
This could have been the series finale and I’d have been satisfied. I’m thrilled that it’s not. Hunter’s been building to this for a few books now — and it absolutely pays off the work she’s been doing. Better yet, there’s something else she’s been building toward that doesn’t get the attention it needed — and it’s devastating. The series will be different from here on out. Hunter’s as good as the genre has, and this book demonstrates it.

—–

5 Stars

Jimbo YojimboJimbo Yojimbo

by David W. Barbee

My original post
I don’t have words for this. I really don’t know how to say anything about this book — especially not in a paragraph. Click on the original post and know that even then I fail to do the book justice. It’s strange, gross, funny, exciting and thrilling.

—–

4 Stars

Beneath the Sugar SkyBeneath the Sugar Sky

by Seanan McGuire

My original post
As much as I appreciate McGuire’s Toby Daye, Indexing and InCryptid series, her Wayward Children books are possibly the best things she’d done. This allows us to spend time with characters I didn’t think we’d see again and the family — and world — of my favorite character in the series. It’s like McGuire wrote this one specifically for me. But it’s okay for you to read it, too. I’m generous like that.

—–

5 Stars

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Beneath the Sugar SkyBeneath the Sugar Sky

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #3

Hardcover, 174 pg.
Tor Books, 2018

Read: January 11, 2018

Children have always tumbled down rabbit holes, fallen through mirrors, been swept away by unseasonal floods or carried off by tornadoes. Children have always traveled, and because they are young and bright and full of contradictions, they haven’t always restricted their travel to the possible. Adulthood brings limitations like gravity and linear space and the idea that bedtime is a real thing, and not an artificially imposed curfew. Adults can still tumble down rabbit holes and into enchanted wardrobes, but it happens less and less with every year they live. Maybe this is a natural consequence of living in a world where being careful is a necessary survival trait, where logic wears away the potential for something bigger and better than the obvious. Childhood melts, and flights of fancy are replaced by rules. Tornados kill people: they don’t carry them off to magical worlds. Talking foxes are a sign of fever, not guides sent to start some grand adventure.

But children, ah, children. Children follow the foxes, and open the wardrobes, and peek beneath the bridge. Children climb the walls and fall down the wells and run the razor’s edge of possibility until sometimes, just sometimes, the possible surrenders and shows them the way to go home.

So begins Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third installment of McGuire’s Wayward Children series. If you’d asked me why I was excited about this book before reading it, I could’ve given you a list of reasons — but I’d forgotten just how magical the books are. By the time I got to “ah, children” not only did I remember the magic, I was under its spell.

Sometime after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, two residents of Eleanor West’s Home are down at the pond (they returned from water-worlds, and this is the best they can get), when a naked girl lands in the pond (falling from apparently nowhere), demanding to see her mother, or at the very least, someone in charge. It turns out that this girl is Sumi’s daughter — the problem there is that Sumi died during Every Heart, so she didn’t get to mature a bit, go back to her world, defeat the evil Queen, get married and have Rini. Now, the Timeline is catching up to her, and faster than you can say Marty McFly, Rini is starting to disappear, finger by finger, limb by limb. This doesn’t sit well with her, as you can imagine.

I like existing. I’m not ready to unexist just because of stupid causality. I didn’t invite stupid causality to my birthday party, it doesn’t get to give me any presents.

So, four of the residents set off on a quest to bring Sumi back to life. This takes them across the U. S., into one of the worlds of the dead, and all around Sumi/Rini’s nonsense world. There’s heroism, mystery, sacrifice, triumph and cleverness all around, without which none of this would work, but with it all — and a healthy dose of magic — it’s a plan so crazy that it just might work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the characters apart from what I’ve already said (which is essentially nothing). In addition to Rini — we have a nice mix of new to us and returning friends — with one character that’s new to the Home as well as to us. I absolutely enjoyed getting the bonus time with the returning characters, the new (to us) characters were exactly the kind of kids you hope to find in these books. Also, some of the revelations about some secondary characters serve to explain a lot about the way this particular multiverse came to be and it’s pretty cool. So, basically, the character material in this novella is almost perfect.

I wasn’t as taken with Down Among the Sticks and Bones as I was with Every HeartEvery Heart was a wonderful mix of tragedy and violence with a sense of play (especially in the ideas and words) — there was hope throughout the book, even when it was dark for everyone and there was little reason for it. Down Among was about dashed hope and tragedy in a world of tragedy, dashed hopes and violence; yes, there as a little play with the language, and some moments of triumph, but they were all overshadowed. Which was fine, it was the story that needed to be told, and I’m not complaining, but Beneath the Sugar Sky was more of a return to the tone of Every Heart, so I liked it more than Down Among — I think it was a better book, too, but I could be wrong about it. I just know it was easier to like. There’s definitely tragedy, there are hard choices to be made — and I did say something about sacrifice — but there’s a strand of hope throughout that makes it so much easier to carry on.

One thing that has been on display throughout this series is a sense of play, a sense of fair tale worlds and logic reflected in the language McGuire uses — you’ve seen bits of it already above, just one more and I’ll call it good:

There was a door there, tall and imposing, the sort of door that belonged on a cathedral or a palace; the sort of door that said “keep out” far more loudly than it would ever dream of saying “come in.”

You know exactly what that door looks like, and you have a great sense of the environment around it, too. Just from that one sentence. McGuire has a great sense of style on display in the Toby Daye and InCryptid books, which is turned up in the Indexed serials, but is probably best seen in these books — capturing the feel of preternatural worlds has pushed her to unleash all of her pent-up linguistic magic. Even if I disliked the characters and stories she’s telling in this series, I think the language would bring me back.

I’m obviously a pretty big Seanan McGuire fan — just a quick glance at the archives will tell you that. But I’m willing to bet that even if I wasn’t predisposed to like her work, this series would’ve made me one — Beneath the Sugar Sky is a slice of literary perfection and I can’t encourage you enough to try it.

—–

5 Stars

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and BonesDown Among the Sticks and Bones

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #2

Hardcover, 187 pg.
Tor, 2017

Read: June 14, 2017

Some adventures begin easily. It is not hard, after all, to be sucked up by a tornado or pushed through a particularly porous mirror; there is no skill involved in being swept away by a great wave or pulled down a rabbit hole. Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.

This is the story about how Jack and Jill, the twins in the middle of the events in Every Heart a Doorway, got to The Moors, the dark world they had their adventures in before being returned to ours.

They were born to people that never should have had kids, had miserable childhoods (not that they realized it) — with two bright spots. The lesser, but more constant, bright spot was each other — they always had their twin. Just before this relationship was torn apart by the ways their parents were dividing them, the find themselves in a magic kingdom. They’re split up again, but this time the lifestyles they are immersed in better fit their personalities than what had been imposed on them by the World’s Worst Parents. Jack is trained by a mad scientist, learning to deliver medical care, reanimate the dead and more. Jill is pampered by a vampire that rules The Moors — being coached and guided into becoming one herself. We see them grow into strong individuals in this dark and deadly place before being returned to Earth.

The story is one we know already (assuming we read the first book), and even without that, it’s pretty clear how things are going to go. But that doesn’t make this any less gripping — the character work, the development of these two girls is fantastic. And the world created in The Moors is fantastic, you can see it — practically smell, feel and taste it. Best of all is the way that McGuire tells the story, the way she describes things (emotions, internal actions, external actions). It’s almost as magical as the first book.

It’s not a perfect novella, however. I’d have been tempted to call the previous one perfect, but this doesn’t quite make it. It seemed like half-story, half-manifesto against the kind of parenting McGuire hates.

This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them. A person may look at someone else’s child and see only the surface, the shiny shoes or the perfect curls. They do not see the tears and the tantrums, the late nights, the sleepless hours, the worry. They do not even see the love, not really. It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own.

It can be easy, in the end, to forget that children are people, and that people will do what people will do, the consequences be damned.

It’s McGuire’s book, I’m not saying she shouldn’t feel free to use the space the way she wants — but it detracted from the story. Their parents have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, McGuire’s usually better than that. I think you could make the case that their shallowness, their utter horribleness fits the fairy-tale-ish story she’s telling. Honestly, I think that was the case — but it just doesn’t feel right. I would’ve like a little more time with the vampire himself — although maybe not getting more time with him, and learning about him primarily from the way that others react to him and his actions does make him creepier.

I was hoping (but didn’t expect) to see a little about what happened to the pair after Every Heart, oh well — hopefully soon.

I thought it a little heavy-handed in some places, but overall, I was just so happy to return to this series that I can get past it and recommend this one almost as highly as the last one.

—–

4 Stars

Lowering Expectations

When I get home from work today, my copy of Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire should be waiting for me, I’ve been eagerly waiting for this book for about a year now.

I know (well, I fear) that it won’t be as good as Every Heart a Doorway — it can’t be.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be good, just not as good. As long as I remember that, I won’t be disappointed. Which is my biggest fear.

Am I the only one who plays mind-games like this?

Every Heart a Doorway (Audiobook) by Seanan McGuire, Cynthia Hopkins

Every Heart a Doorway (Audiobook) Every Heart a Doorway

by Seanan McGuire, Cynthia Hopkins (Narrator)
Series: Wayward Children, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs., 44 min.
2016, Macmillan Audio

Read: November 17 – 18, 2016


When I get to considering my favorites of 2016, there’s no way that Every Heart a Doorway doesn’t make the Top 10 (see my initial post), so when I saw it available on the library’s audiobook site when I needed something to end the week with, I grabbed it, certain I was going to have a lot of fun.

Wow, was that a mistake. The story was just as good, the characters as rich, the world(s) just as fascinating — the writing, the wordplay, the language . . . it was just as good as I remembered. But man, the narration just didn’t work for me at all. The book is creepy, funny, spooky, beautiful — and remains so despite the narration. The jokes don’t land, most of the characters seem to lack affect. Actually, I have a list of problems, but I don’t want to get nasty, so I’ll just leave it at that.

I did pick up a bit of a William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”-vibe towards the end this time that I hadn’t picked up the first time — but I still like it, regardless. I noticed more details, and appreciated the examination of the ideas of what’s home and what’s real maybe a little more this time, so it wasn’t a wasted effort. But it was a disappointing one.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t think Hopkins couldn’t turn in a good performance — I don’t have enough information to say that. I do think that she was wrong for this project, didn’t understand it, or had an off day. I’m not sure. But a novella as exceptionally good as Every Heart a Doorway deserves the best, and this wasn’t it. So for this audiobook (not the text version), I’ve gotta go with 4 stars (and even that feels a little generous).

—–

4 Stars

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a DoorwayEvery Heart a Doorway

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #1

Hardcover, 169 pg.
Tor.com, 2016

Read: April 16, 2016

“. . . we went through. We came out on this moor that seemed to go on forever, between the mountains and the angry sea. And that sky! I’d never seen so many stars before, or such a red, red moon. The door slammed shut behind us. We couldn’t have gone back if we’d wanted to — and we didn’t want to. We were twelve. We are going to have an adventure if it killed us.”

“Did you? asked Nancy. “Have an adventure, I mean?”

“Sure,” said Jack bleakly. “It didn’t even kill us. Not permanently anyway. But it changed everything.”

One of my favorite book bloggers to read (and not just because our tastes are similar) began his take on Every Heart a Doorway by saying:

Sometimes we either meet a book (or a novella, in this case,) that is precisely the right fit for your soul, (at the moment,) or just happens to be original enough right when you need it, that it fills your life and your mind with brightness and joy.

For me, this is one of those pieces. To muddy the waters even more, I’m an unabashed fan of the author and I’m likely to pick up all of her writings without even checking the subject matter because I simply trust the woman to steer me to any shore.

If I didn’t start off by quoting that, I’d end paraphrasing/plagiarizing it.

So here’s the deal in a world where portal fantasies are possible, and children all over the world are going through them — à la Lucy Pevensie et al., Dorothy Gale, September, Quentin Coldwater, Alice, Jason Walker, etc. — and, sadly (?) most of these children end up back home. Some of them are glad to be back in this world and want to put their adventures behind them — a lot of them don’t want to be here anymore and want to return to wherever it was they went. Both kinds of children have a hard time coping in this world and need help. Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is for the latter kind.

Nancy is a girl recently returned, and is very different than the girl her parents have been missing. They want her fixed, they want their daughter back — not whoever this person is with different attitudes, actions, clothes, etc. — West doesn’t promise that (but she may have allowed them to think she’ll do that, just so she can help Nancy), but she can help Nancy adjust to this world. So she joins the small student body at the private school/treatment center. The last thing Nancy wants is to be fixed, to be that girl again — which just means she fits in here, with returned kids from all over the country, who’ve been in all sorts of worlds. As Nancy begins to understand the nature of these other worlds, the effects they have on children, and why many of them want to leave again, so do we.

It turns out, all of the residents of West’s Home are going to learn that you can have plenty of adventures here, too. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I really liked all of these children — the adults we met, too, actually — Jack in particular. But every one of them — even the less-than-nice ones — are great characters and I’d have gladly spent another 200 pages with them, easy.

The writing is incredible — not that I’ve ever had any real problems with McGuire before, but she kicked it up a notch here — and is writing a different kind of story than I’m used to, so she writes differently. This book took me longer to read than it should’ve, because I had to go back and reread several sentences/lines/paragraphs — not because I needed to read them again for clarification, but because they were so perfect, so quotable, so . . . something. I’m not going to start quoting beyond what I opened with, because I don’t know if I could stop — Laura got two of them I made notes about. You could literally be amused, melancholy, horrified, feeling whimsy, and nervous within a couple of paragraphs — only to turn the page and start all over again. Not because she was jerking you around or anything, it’s just that kind of story, that kind of playing with language, just that kind of broken reality.

McGuire gave us such a satisfying ending — complete, tidy, fitting, bittersweet, heartwarming — and then I read another paragraph or so, and it’s so much better (and all of the above to the next degree) once you got to the actual ending. Then I closed the book and I teared up a little — for no reason at all, really, but it felt really appropriate.

Can I say this is positively Gaiman-esque without making it sound like McGuire’s derivative in any way? I don’t want to even hint at suggesting that — but man, if you like Neil Gaiman’s stuff — get this. If you’ve ever read a portal fantasy and wondered what happened to the kids afterwards– get this. If you like things that are good, and don’t mind magic in your reading — get this.

—–

5 Stars