Good Start, Mediocre Rest: Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down

I have this strange love/hate relationship with the Wayward Children series, although it tends to lean more towards hate than love. However, since these novellas keep getting nominated for Hugo Awards by Seanan McGuire’s loyal fans, I keep having to read them. Occasionally, a really good one comes up, but mostly, this series suffers from the big problem that it wants to do great things in too little time and thus ultimately falls flat (most of the time).

come-tumbling-downCOME TUMBLING DOWN
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 206 pages
Series: Wayward Children #5
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Eleanor West was fond of saying – inasmuch as she was fond of saying anything predictable, sensible, or more than once – that her school had no graduates, only students who found somwhere else to do their learning for a time.

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister – whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice – back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.
Again.


If you’ve come this far in the Wayward Children series, you will be familiar with Jack and Jill. The Wolcott twins were first introduced in the very first volume, then we got their backstory and a glimpse into their world – the Moors – in the second book. As difficult a relationship as I may have with these books, Jack and Jill’s story was easily the most interesting one, and not only because we follow them for much longer than most of the others. So naturally, I was excited to see Jack again and maybe get to know the Moors a little better.

Come Tumbling Down starts out really well. Our protagonist (but not really) this time is Christopher whose world is called Mariposa. It’s full of bones and skeletons and, for some reason, butterflies? As usual, one shouldn’t question the portal worlds these kids come from too much. The important thing is it’s their world where they feel at home and while, for some, that can mean candy and rainbows, for others it’s bones and blood.

When Jack surprisingly returns to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she comes with a quest. Something terrible has happened, her homelands are in danger of being destroyed, and she needs help to defeat the Master and her sister Jill if she wants to return to her life in the Moors. The quest is a go – despite the “no quests” policy the school has (and which makes absolutely no sense when you think about it) – and Kade, Christopher, Cora, and Sumi follow Jack into her world to do some adventuring.

Let me first tell you the things I liked about this book. There are a few characters that I’ve come to care about, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of the series in general. Sumi’s chipper yet occasionally morbid personality is definitely a win. Her humor is very much Seanan McGuire’s humor and since I happen to find her very funny, Sumi just works for me. When someone asks you if you weren’t the one that got killed a while ago and you answer with “I got better” I just can’t help but laugh.
I also found fascinating how McGuire showed Jack’s OCD. Given the situation she’s in – Jill switched the twins’ bodies – it’s easy to see how Jack is just barely keeping it together and working hard every moment not to go mad. Especially at the beginning of the book, this was done really well.

I read the first half of this book in one sitting because it was exciting, the characters were interesting, and the plot promised a visit to a cool if creepy world and a potentially epic finale. Sadly, during the second half, it became clear that the scope of this series’ idea is too big for what can be done in a handful of novellas. Shoddy worldbuilding is okay when you only mention someone’s portal world briefly, but when you send a group of people into it, flaws become obvious. The Moors just didn’t feel like a real world. They felt exactly like what their purpose is in these stories. A few small ideas thrown together that sound good but when you put people into that world, it all feels flimsy and unbelievable. Again, I am aware that this is not the purpose of these stories. If I want epic world building and intricate politics, there are plenty of other books out there, and Seanan McGuire definitely knows how to do world building. But because the world building here is almost nonexistent and the portal worlds themselves are simply backdrop for the character drama that’s going on, the character drama needs to be really good to keep me interested.

This was another aspect that starte out very well and then just kind of ebbed away towards the end of the book. Jack and Jill’s story is the king of all sibling conflicts but I felt that the other characters (most of whom I like) got in the way of it. The story shoudl have focused more on Jack and Jill, the Master and Mr. Bleak, and the way the Moors work. Although I gladly read Sumi’s quippy and sometimes poignant remarks, any line given to other characters took precious page space away from Jack. And so, by the end of the book, I watched things go down semi-interestedly but I wasn’t invested anymore. Jack’s OCD was barely mentioned anymore (that’s not a critique, I understand why that choice was made) and we spent too much time drifting off to other characters. The kind-of-but-not-really protagonist Christopher also never gets to be a fully fleshed out character because 200 pages is simply not enough.

The problem I have with all of these books, even the ones I enjoyed, is that they are trying to do a certain thing – and it’s very transparent what that is – but they never quite accomplish it. And that’s not for lack of skill on the author’s part, it’s simply that the format of novella isn’t suited to the endeavour because there just isn’t enough time to build up the characters, make them feel real, rather than just stand-ins for various diversity points.

This series gets praised for representation a lot and while I am thrilled that there are fantasy books about all sorts of diverse people, I’d still like these people to be more than their “condition”. I think it’s doing them a disservice to reduce them all to their sexuality, their gender identity, their disorder, their weight, their skin color… It’s clear that the point of these books is to show that all people can be heroes, regardless of how they are viewed in our world. The Wayward Children are all outsiders in a way, marginalized because they “don’t fit in” for various reasons. Giving those characters stories of their own, stories where they get to be the protagonist, is wonderful and it’s probably the main reason I am still – reluctantly – reading this series. But simply saying the cast is X or Y, like checking off an imaginary diversity list, doesn’t accomplish the goal of giving them a proper story and voice. To truly establish a character with every aspect of who they are – be that Jack’s OCD or Kade’s being trans – takes time. Time that simply isn’t there when you’re trying to tell a whole story in 200 pages. So as much as I commend McGuire for writing about these characters (and I want her to continue doing so), I also think novellas are maybe not the way to go. Even Jack, one of the most memorable characters so far, came across as a bit flat by the end of this book.

I remember nitpicking in the last instalment that the readers weren’t allowed to take part in the actual adventuring but only witnessed the aftermath and the quieter moments in between the exciting parts. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have complained because it turns out, the “adventures” in this series just aren’t very good. And I get it, that’s not what the series is supposed to be about. But even in a character-focused piece, if you’re sending your characters on a quest, at least make that quest somewhat interesting, make the stakes believable and high enough for us to care, and don’t just tell us the plan, then execute the plan, then be done with it. That’s boring!

This book also reminded me of the worst instalment yet (the sugary one) and the most annoying, least likable character of them all. Cora, the former mermaid and incredibly self-absorbed wayward child, is mostly just annoying and bitchy, but when she actually does take action, it’s sure to make life even harder for everyone else. Cora believes everything is about her, even though this is clearly Jack’s story and taking place in Jack’s world. But no, every chance she gets, Cora is convinced things revolve around her somehow. Every piece of dialogue, even about the most random things, is surely an attack on her person, and everyone is definitely spending their entire time thinking and saying mean things about her. Wow, I really can’t stand that girl and I hope she soon finds a doorway back to her underwater world and we never have to read about her again. Just stay out of other people’s adventures if you’re going to make them all about yourself. She doesn’t deserve how nice people are to her because, frankly, she is useless and offended at things that have nothing to do with her. And she constantly accuses her friends (!) of making fat jokes when nobody even gives the tiniest shit about her weight and nobody at the school would ever make a hurtful joke about her because they are all outsiders and know what that’s like. At one point, she says something accusingly for which absolutely nobody but herself is responsible yet she presents herself as the victim of her evil, evil friends who dragged her into this (she wanted to come!) and for whom she almost died (she endangered herself of her own volition while Kade actually risked his own life to try and save her!!!).
I assume the 7th Wayward Children novella will be all about her and I’m curious if McGuire manages to make her at least a little sympathetic by then. Otherwise, I will just have to skip that book.

All things considered, I loved the first half of this novella. I didn’t like the second one all that much, and the ending – while I technically find it ends in a satisfying way – didn’t carry the weight it could and maybe should have. Because there are too many characters crammed into this little book, the emotional impact got lost over the course of the story. I didn’t dislike it but I didn’t love it, which will probably make it end up somewhere in the middle of my Hugo ballot this year.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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