come-tumbling-down-by-seanan-mcguireI’ve been singing the praises of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series ever since reading the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, when it came out in 2016. Every following year since then, McGuire has released a new installment, and I’ve dutifully read every single one, thinking they were each a gift.

It’s a series that I love. That much is true. But it’s also been a series that has been, in retrospect, somewhat hit or miss for me, too.

This was very much a miss for me. Which is disappointing, seeing as how this book follows Jack and Jill, two of my favorite characters in this series (for my money, Down Among the Stick and Bones, the second installment of the series, and the first that was centered around them, is probably the best out of the whole bunch).

(Some spoilers for the previous books ahead.)

Come Tumbling Down, the fifth entry in the series, picks up where Every Heart a Doorway left Jack and Jill: with murderous Jill dead at the hands of Jack, who drags her body back to their dark world of the Moors, where she can easily be resurrected. Jack is successful in this regard, only to have her body snatched by her sister, who means to use it — much to Jack’s complete chagrin — for Dark Purposes that put the whole of the Moors in cataclysmal danger. After a personal tragedy, Jack is compelled to reach out to her former fellow students at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children and ask for their help in restoring the balance her world demands and that she so desperately craves.

The premise is intriguing enough, but the payoff ultimately falls short. There are exciting, nerve-wracking stakes that are introduced very suddenly… only to be waved away just as quickly. The writing is still characteristically gorgeous (McGuire’s writing has always been the star of the Wayward Children books, after all), but a lot the dialogue feels stilted and forced this time around, the characterization clunky and awkward. There’s just a lot here that just didn’t click for me, in the end.

The slightly spotty portrayal was the main thing that felt out of place for me for me, the most egregious example being Sumi, a character who veers totally into tropeish underestimated-ingenue-who-is-also-profound-and-wise territory. How every other character in this story keep thinking of her as just a simple-minded Cloudcuckoolander when her every other declaration is nothing but pure perspicacity is beyond me. It’s frustrating.

If I’m being fastidious, it’s only because you are always a little harder on your favorites.⠀

The way McGuire releases these books is that she alternates between time periods: one book will follow the School story in the present, and the other will follow one of their characters in the past, as they stumble upon their doors and find out what lies on the other side. I’ve enjoyed the latter books a lot more. They may come from the more traditional portal fantasy mold, but that is a form of storytelling of which I am fond. And besides, knowing what the future holds for many of these characters adds a bittersweet angle to these stories, which I also appreciate. I like my fairy tales fairly full of melodrama.

Do I still think these books are a gift? Yes, of course I do. As previously mentioned: the preeminent star of these stories is Seanan McGuire’s own prose, which is as ethereal and rhapsodic as ever, and which makes her less than stellar work shine far brighter than most

You are always a little harder on your favorites, but every Wayward book is still an endowment from the world on the other side of the door, and is appreciated as such.

IN AN ABSENT DREAM by Seanan McGuire

in-an-absent-dream-by-seanan-mcguireSeanan 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.