The Goblin Market Awaits: Seanan McGuire – In An Absent Dream

My track record with Seanan McGuire’s books is not great, but it is slowly getting better as I pick up more of her books and find I quite enjoy some of them. The Wayward Children series, however, has been a mixed bag, to put it nicely. And my biggest problem with the series remains – namely that we don’t get the magic but only the grief of having lost it – but there are moments of brightness. This instalment, I’m happy to say, is on such bright moment.

IN AN ABSENT DREAM
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 187 pages
Series: Wayward Children #4
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: In a house, on a street, in a town ordinary enough in every aspect to cross over its own roots and become remarkable, there lived a girl named Katherine Victoria Lundy.

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

Katherine Lundy is a quiet, almost solemn, child who sticks by the rules and has learned not to mind the fact that she has no friends. Being the headmaster’s daughter is difficult but she retreats into a world of books. When one day, a tree appears in her path, and in that tree is a door, Lundy may hesitate, but she steps through – and into the Goblin Market. Before she comes out on the other side, however, there are certain rules to remember…

You will be surprised but not as surprised as I myself was that I really, really enjoyed this book! Finally, this volume shows what I had been hoping for from the beginning, by the description and marketing of this series. It shows a young girl who stumbles into a different, magical world, and then loses that world. You know that’s not a spoiler because the premise of all of these books is that it’s about people who have lost their portal world. But here, we actually get to see and experience it alongside Lundy and learn to love it the way she does. Here, we feel her pain whenever she has to go home again only to yearn for her return to the Market. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This particular version of the Goblin Market has very little to do with the poem by Christina Rossetti, except that everything has a price. So much so, in fact, that cheating someone becomes impossible. The Market regulates itself and ensures that fair value is given for every transaction. Whether that is a trade of goods, or a service rendered, if someone goes into debt, the Market does what is necessary to restore balance. In this case, it means you slowly turn into a bird… for a small debt, you may sprout some feathers, for a larger one your hands may turn into talons, and so on. I myself am also a friend of rules so, much like Lundy, I gravitated towards this magical world where doing good deeds will grant you good things in return. But despite all the logic and rules, there is still magic everywhere. Centaur unicorns, books that want to be tucked in at night, it’s all there and it’s all wonderful!
And I haven’t even mentioned Moon, the very first friend Lundy makes at the Market. Their relationship, while it could have been fleshed out a bit better, created another anchor for Lundy, another reason to stay at the Market forever and not return to a world where women are not listened to and fair value is rarely given.

The writing style varies but it’s mostly competent with moments of true greatness! This was the first book in the series that made me feel like I get to step into a fairy tale with its protagonist. Some of the descriptions came across like some wise old person was reading them to me, winking when appropriate. McGuire managed to paint pictures with her words and made me taste hot pies and berries fresh off the trees. Why isn’t everything she writes like this?

The one big problem with this book (and the series as a whole) is that we never get to be there when all the great stuff happens. When Lundy returns to our world for the first time, we have seen some of the wonders the Goblin Market can hold, but we are only told that a big event took place, one that even cost a character their life – except it’s a character we never got to know so this isn’t a spoiler. And because this character was only mentioned briefly by name but never properly introduced, Lundy’s grief had zero emotional impact on me. Apparently, she made another friend at the Market, and that friend died in an epic showdown with the Wasp Queen. But we didn’t get to be there! We don’t know that friend, we don’t get to experience the friendship and the consequent pain of losing that friend because it’s literally a throw-away line that lets us know this happened. Also, I would have been really interested in that Wasp Queen and that big battle…
The second time she returns home, the same thing happens. We’re quickly informed there was a battle against Something Evil that leaves Lundy with scars but, not having been there, the reader doesn’t ever get to feel with Lundy. I don’t quite understand why McGuire chose to do it this way. Surely she could have made up some other reason for Lundy to briefly return to our world, if only to get supplies with which to trade at the Market.
I guess this being  a series of novellas rather than full-length novels is partly to blame for that. There simply isn’t enough time to explore all these portal worlds in depth when you only have about 200 pages to do so. There was enough wonder for me to truly enjoy this book, but I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if we’d actually gotten to see all of Lundy and Moon’s adventures in full.

I won’t say much about the ending, except that I thought it was well done and made me feel for Lundy like I had never felt for any of Eleanor West’s wayward children before.

Now that all the gripes are out of the way, I have to say that this is the first Hugo nominated Wayward Children novella that I believe truly deserves its spot on the ballot. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was very good as well, but I didn’t enjoy the writing so much as to notice it. Here, in this novella,  I actually smiled to myself occasionally while reading. And sure, McGuire takes the emotional impact out of her own books on purpose, and this could have been a much deeper, much more moving work of fiction, but for its 187 pages, it got me emotionally involved enough. I don’t quite know where to place this on my Hugo ballot (it’s full of excellent titles) but at this moment, I see it somewhere in the top four.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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