Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream is the story about Katherine Lundy, a quiet, bookish girl who doesn’t feel at ease with her surroundings. She loves stories, so she finds comfort in books, and she loves rules not simply because she’s supposed to, as the story tells us later on, but because following them “could make you an invisible person, and invisible people got to do as they liked.” (Katherine is also fond of loopholes.) (Katherine would have been a Slytherin.) At school, she’s guarded and reserved, and, as the principal’s daughter, the subject to some bullying, not at all quick to make friends. At home, she’s distant and struggles to connect with her family, mostly because they constantly fail to properly see her for the person she is.
Let us speak, for a moment, on the matter of sisters. They can be enemies to fight or companions to lean upon: they can, at times, be strangers. They are not required to be friends, or to have involvement in one another’s lives, or to be anything more than strangers united by the circumstances of their birth. Still, there is a magic in the word “sister,” a magic which speaks of shared roots and hence shared branches, of a certain ease that is always to be pursued, if not always to be found.
One day while walking home from school Katherine stumbles upon a gnarled and twisting tree that seems to be plucked straight out from a fairy tale. Carved inside the tree is a door, with the words “Be Sure” engraved upon it. Are we at all surprised when Katherine walks up to it, turns the knob to open it, and walks through? We’ve known her only a short time at this point, but we know — we’re sure — this action was as inevitable as death.
This is a story about identity, and belonging. About searching for a place to call home, and what home means, and the price you have to pay to find it.
What is home, after all, apart from the place one returns to when the adventure is over? Home is an end to glory, a stopping point when the tale is done.
Three pages were all it took for me to remember just why I love this series so much. Seanan McGuire’s language in these books is lyrical and lush and drop-dead gorgeous, perfectly capturing the rhythm and beats of traditional fairy tales while still retaining enough of McGuire’s darker, modern edge. And it’s a sharp edge at that. One of the most striking things about the writing in the Wayward Children books is how brutally honest it can be. The language is luscious, but it is used to reveal some harsh truths.
It is so often easy, when one has the luxury of being sure a thing will never happen, to be equally sure of one’s answers. Reality, it must sadly be said, has a way of complicating things, even things we might believe could never be that complicated.
And this is a harsh story. Beautiful, to be sure, but Lundy’s tale is, ultimately, a tragic one, and the writing delivers on that, one bittersweet line at a time.