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

The Faerie PI Continued: Seanan McGuire – A Local Habitation

I have a strange relationship with Seanan McGuire’s books. Some of them I really hate, others I find okay, yet others show such amazing glimpses of potential that they make me want to read everything she’s ever written. I only started the October Daye series last year but that first book truly blew me away. So even though I’m about a decade behind, I picked up the second book and – while not as great as the first – was yet again entertained and positively surprised.

A LOCAL HABITATION
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW Books, 2010
Ebook: 400 pages
Series: October Daye #2
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: The last train out of San Francisco leaves at midnight; miss it and you’re stuck until morning.

October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills.

Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim.

I’m not well-versed in the realm of Urban Fantasy but I thought this story was such a cool mash-up. You get Fae and changelings and all sorts of mythical creatures, but you also get a sort of locked room murder mystery. Toby and her new teenage assistant Quentin are sent to the County of Tamed Lightning to see if Sylvester’s niece is okay. She hasn’t been calling and that’s unusual. When they arrive at Countess January’s computer company, things immediately turn weird. Not only are there very few staff for a building this size but they also seem to be hiding something. And January tells Toby that she’s got things wrong. It’s Sylvester who hasn’t been answering Jan’s calls. Something is definitely rotten in the County of Tamed Lightning.

This second Toby Daye adventure had a much slower start than the pilot novel (I’m calling it that now, because this feels like a TV show and I wouldn’t mind an adaptation). But all that somewhat tedious set up is for a reason. Not only does McGuire introduce a bunch of new characters, she also uses the time to foreshadow things and to lead her readers astray. I thought I was so clever when I figured out one little twist pretty early on. And I was right about that twist. But I also thought I had everything else figured out. Something or someone is killing off the people working at January’s company and I was sure I knew who the murderer was from the beginning. I’m glad to say I was wrong and McGuire did manage to surprise me!

We don’t only follow Toby and Quentin along on their investigation, though. That alone would have been fun because the two of them develop a wonderful dynamic. Toby wants to teach Quentin, but she’s also fiercely protective of him. After all, spending any amount of time with her usually leads to mortal danger and she does not want Quentin to come to harm because of her. But there is also something very strange about the murders. Normally, when Fae die, the Night Haunts come to take away the bodies. Fae don’t rot, so even though they’re immortal, when they die, humans would eventually notice the bodies. But these murders? The Night Haunts seem uninterested in doing their job. What’s even stranger is that the victims’ blood is “empty” – Toby can’t get their memories out of them and so she’s tapping in the dark for a long time.

There were a few things that frustrated me while reading this book but most of them can be explained away by “it’s magic”. I did feel like the reader is supposed to know a bit more than Toby but knowing – or at least suspecting – what I did, it annoyed me so much that Toby didn’t get it as well. She’s smart, damn it, and she knows way more about Faerie than I do!
The other thing, and that’s the reason I don’t read much Urban Fantasy, is the narrative tone. I’m not a particular fan of the smart, somewhat self-deprecating, sassy heroine who nonetheless overcomes a dozen injuries and can still kick ass. And Toby is exactly that. But, and that’s why I want to follow her further adventures, she’s also kind and a little lost and she’s got a sense of humor.

As slow as the beginning may have been, the book ramps up the stakes and delivers more and more action scenes the further you get along. The ending was great, although I could have done without the emotional villain monologue, and I was so happy that things turned out differently than I expected. McGuire managed to write a fun, exciting second novel in this series and if the next one is as good, she may yet turn me into a proper fan. Go, Toby!

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

My thoughts on The October Daye series:

  1. Rosemary and Rue

Apocalypse Twins: Seanan McGuire – Middlegame

So, I’m not a huge Seanan McGuire fan (although I did love the first book in the October Daye series and hope I’ll continue to love the rest of the series) but this book had caught my attention even before it was a Hugo Award finalist. That striking cover, the synopsis – separated twins who, when working together correctly, can control the world? – and the general buzz made me want to pick this up. And it turned out to be pretty good. Not great but, you know, pretty good.

MIDDLEGAME
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 528 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: The gunfire from outside is louder and less dramatic than he expected, like the sound of someone setting off firecrackers inside a tin can.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.
Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.
Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

This book opens with the Bad Guys plotting an Evil Plan. A plan that involves creating twins who are supposed to embody the Doctrine of Ethos – which is essentially the power to control the world. The Bad Guys want that power and now it seems they have finally succeeded in breeding a pair that will manage to grow up and manifest it. In order to grow up just the way the Bad Guys want, Roger and Dodger (yeah, I know) are separated and given to different families who raise them as their own almost-normal kids.

It soon turns out that Roger is gifted with languages while Dodger is a maths prodigy. Oh, and they also find out they can communicate across the continent by closing their eyes and talking to each other. What others may see as imaginary friends, these two know to be the real deal. And so begins a tale of two lonely kids who find their best friend only when they close their eyes. It’s a tale of finding each other, of separation, of doing what’s right for the world, of looking out for each other and sometimes letting go of each other. It’s also about playing around with time and saving the world, of course.

Before I get into my gripes with this book, let me say that I enjoyed reading it. It’s by no means a short book and while there are many huge books out there that let you breeze through them in no time at all, this is not one of them. I don’t know how many times, while reading, I thought to myself “okay, get on with it already”. But that doesn’t mean that the long-ish chapters between the moments when something actually progresses are bad. As someone who likes character-focused stories, there was always something for me to enjoy in any given chapter. Roger and Dodger were both very likable protagonists and, although most readers won’t be able to identify with two wunderkind characters, it was easy to sympathize with them and want to follow them on their journey to adulthood.

I don’t know when I started seeing the potential in books I’m reading rather than just go with what’s there. I used to simply read and take what the author had chosen to put on the page, not imagine ways in which this story could have been told better or the theme could have shone more brightly. That’s happened to me a lot lately, and especially so with this book.

With two genius protagonists who each excel in their field, it would have been so great if the writing style reflected that. It’s a third person omniscient narrative, meaning the narrator often knows more than the characters do (and tells us) – that’s a pretty neat device to build tension but it doesn’t help all that much with character development. Had this been told in third person limited – in the viewpoint character’s voice – we could have gotten an amazing distinction between Roger’s linguistic acrobatics and Dodger’s mathematical assessment of the world. I would have loved to not only be told that they experience the world and express themselves differently but also to see it.
While narrative choice is one thing, dialogue should be another. Roger and Dodger, having been made into what they are, having grown up apart (even with the mental connection they share) should absolutely not talk the same. But they do. Roger especially should maybe, occasionally use all those words we are told over and over again he knows. The more I think about it, the more lazy the character development feels. As much as McGuire likes to repeatedly inform us that Roger is all about language and Dodger is all about maths, she doesn’t take much time to actually show her characters be that way. Dodger, to me, was a severely lonely, depressed girl with nothing in the world to hold on to except her work and Roger. Roger on the other hand came across as easy going, strangely successful with the ladies, and quick to make friends. And they talked exactly the same. Just like the side characters who aren’t prodigies.
None of that makes the story any more interesting or hurts the ideas presented here, but I still felt it was wasted potential and weak character development to have everyone speak the same. Real life people (prodogies or no) don’t all speak the same but two academic geniuses seriously should have the occasional quirk in the way the talk or think.

What bothered me even more, although it’s connected to the gripes mentioned above, is that the world building and magic system (if you want to call it that) is super wishy washy. I really loved the beginning of this book because it feels like the author has this all planned out and there’s a big scheme that I, as the reader, get to discover over the next 500 pages, unravelling it bit by bit. That promise was not kept, I’m afraid. The revelation what the twins are and why they were made comes early, and after that, the only mystery left is what happens if they do manage to manifest and actually become the embodiment of the Doctrine of Ethos.
Without spoiling the ending for you here, all I can say is that it all fell rather flat. It’s not a bad ending, it just isn’t as epic as it could have been. What with all the build up and the promise of great things, I was hoping for more than the book kind of trickling to a stop. Especially when I consider that this book is pretty damn big and spends a lot of its time repeating how Great and Terrible things can be once the twins manifest.

Now, I have to throw in one thing I absolutely adored about this (and which, in the long run, will probably lead to more disappointment on my part, but that’s a different story). The Alchemist who came up with the genius plan to put the Doctrine of Ethos into people was Asphodel Baker. It is also her Frankenstein’s-monster-like creation Reed who continues with her plan and made Roger and Dodger. To preserve her ideas in plain sight, Baker wrote a children’s book called Over the Woodward Wall of which we get to see snippets at the end of some chapters. And those snippets made me want to snatch a copy of this fictional book right away! The good news is, Seanan McGuire actually wrote the book within a book and it’s coming out in October 2020! The (probably) bad news is that I am now very, very worried that all the things we are told are coded into the childrens book won’t actually end up making sense. You see, Baker supposedly hid all her secrets in plain sight, putting instructions to world domination via Doctrine-manifestation into her children’s book. And because the world building in Middlegame was less than stellar, I worry that Over the Woodward Wall will be no different.
BUT! The little scenes we got to read from the book within a book were so engaging and promised such a lovely tale that I think I can enjoy it even when it doesn’t make sense in the larger world of Middlegame. I look forward to this so, so much!
(While McGuire is by no means the first person to do this, I couldn’t help but feel that she just copied Cat Valente – who is her friend – and what she did with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.)

But back to Middlegame. In the end, I think this book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. An epic sci-fi story or a slow character piece? Unfortunately, it did both of those things only half-heartedly. There are great science fictional ideas here but they were never properly worked out or explained in a way that made sense to me. Whenever things got tricky, the author just handwaved them away, saying things like “Dodger knew the math of this situation and did stuff” rather than work out an actual, believable sfnal way how she does this. I am totally fine with character-driven narratives and it was Roger and Dodger as people that I enjoyed following, but that, too, wasn’t done as well as it could have been.
This is just my opinion, but I believe McGuire should have waited to write this book until she had the required skill. It’s based on a really cool idea and it’s done well enough to keep me reading and want to know how it all plays out. But the execution wasn’t as great as it could have been and I can’t help but wish this had been done by another author, just to see what they would have done with it. It is a worthy finalist for the Hugo Award but with what it lacks in language and world building, I don’t think it can keep up with its stronger competitors.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

Urban Fairy Thriller: Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

I am not a fan of Seanan McGuire’s fiction. But I really like her as a person – in the SF Squeecast podcast, in interviews, whenever I read her non-fiction – and so it was hard for me to see that this cool, funny person has written books that I considered – sorry –  utter crap (two of the three Wayward Children novellas, the third one was actually quite good). So I came to this book with negative expectations. I was worried I would encounter the same one-dimensional characters and lack of plot. Thank the gods of literature I was wrong. So very, very wrong in fact that I’m actually looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

ROSEMARY AND RUE
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: DAW, 2009
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: October Daye #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The phone was ringing.

October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…
The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

I went into this book knowing only the very basics. Toby Daye, half-fairy or something, and private detective investigates case. Which was really good because when I read the first chapter, the twist at the end blew me away! Within just the first few pages, McGuire delivers an emotional punch to the guts that set the tone for the rest of the reading experience for me. I suddenly liked this book, even though the story hadn’t even started. And because I want you guys to have that same fantastic experience, I will not tell you what this initial plot twist is.

The actual story begins when Countess Evening Winterrose – a pretty important fae – is brutally killed, hiring Toby with her last words to figure out her murder case. Now Toby has been absent from the world of Faerie for a long time and doesn’t really want to go back but promises and bindings are important things and she has no choice but to investigate this murder and figure out what is going on. She meets old acquaintances – both the friend and the enemy kind -, meets new people, and almost reaches the end of her powers. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the case is resolved in the end, because there are many more questions left open and much of the world to discover yet.

What I liked about this book first and foremost was Toby herself. That girl has been through hell and is just trying to survive. And people just don’t want to let her. Whether it’s the case that sends her to places and people who take an emotional toll on her, or rather plain attempts on Toby’s life, she just can’t catch a break! I felt for her, I really did, even though there isn’t much that separates her from the other Urban Fantasy heroines I’ve read about. But that one thing from the beginning does separate her and I just happened to like her personality. She’s not the average sassy, sexy, monster-slaying bad-ass. She may be a changeling (a half-fae) but other than that, she’s just a woman trying to get by in life. That includes feeding the cats and paying the bills.

The other thing I really enjoyed and that will probably keep me reading a lot more of this series is the world building. I love mythology and fairy tales, so many of the terms in this particular Faerie world weren’t new to me, but I really liked how McGuire interwove everything and gave certain mythological beings different powers. The fae themselves are separated into different sub-spieces, if you like, and they all come with different abilities. Changelings have weaker powers and, depending on their parentage, their magic also manifests in different ways. There are kelpies and goblins (I loved the rose goblins so much, I want one of my own!), there are Undine and Sidhe, and there is something called the Court of Cats with the aptly named Tybalt as their leader.

Speaking of Tybald, and the male characters in general, I was worried for a while that there would be a romance sub-plot in this story because it’s Urban Fantasy and the dreaded love triangle seems to be a staple of that genre. While Toby doesn’t live in celibacy, I wouldn’t call this a romance. At all. There was a very obvious hint at a potential romance to come in later books but I hope it goes another way. I was a little surprised myself but I’m quite partial to Tybalt. 🙂

Now the plot was at the same time the weaker element of this story and one of its strengths. Let me explain. I thought Toby ran around pretty aimlessly for a long time, talking to people who might have information on her case, visiting places that may give her something to go on, and that’s dandy and all, but it never felt like we got any closer to the resolution. However, the last third of the book, maybe even the entire second half, was so filled with action that it became impossible to put it down. I don’t know how many times I thought “just one more chapter, and then I’ll go to sleep” but I ended up finishing the book. Because if Toby had it hard before, in the second half of the book she really doesn’t get a moment’s peace. It was so much fun to read, with something thrilling happening in every chapter, an attempt on Toby’s life, a big revelation, a character betrayal, you name it.

This felt very much like the beginning of a series, with its own plot, but with many more plot lines that have only just been set up. I’m sure some of the favors Toby called in, some of the promises she’s made, will come back to bite her in the ass later and all you long-time fans will probably giggle to yourselves right now because you already know. I can’t judge the series based on only this book, but I was positively surprised and will definitely continue reading.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Seanan McGuire – Every Heart a Doorway

This is a severe case of over-hyped book. Tor.com had been advertising this book for months, it is the only one of the novellas to come out in hardcover as well as paperback and e-book, and that does send a clear message to readers. It has Seanan McGuire’s name on it, so it must be a hit. Except even a writer with a fanbase as large as McGuires can write something bad every once in a while.

every heart a doorway

EVERY HEART A DOORWAY
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: Tor.com, 2016
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Every Heart a Doorway #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.
No matter the cost.

divider1

Here’s an idea that is so perfect, so full of potential that just thinking of it makes me weep a little. Children disappear to magic lands, parallel universes, the underworld, a palace of clouds to have adventures, fall in love, come of age – only to be thrown out eventually. And they never truly find their way back into our world because that other place is what they think of as home. In the hands of Cat Valente, this idea would have probably turned into a whole series of beautiful, heartbreaking books, but Seanan McGuire (as capable a writer as she is) just is no Cat Valente.

The entire novella felt very cold. I can’t put my finger on why, that’s just the general feeling I took away from it. Nancy arrives at her new school, where everybody is somewhat like her. Everybody went to a different place and had to come back. They are all looking for their door to return to where they were happiest. I suppose this could all be taken as a metaphor for not wanting to grow up and trying to find your way back into childhood, but you know me – I always take magic seriously and I take these trips to other worlds literally.

As this novella is the first of a series, maybe McGuire will expand on all the things that were lacking here in later stories. But with a school full of world-travelling kids, there is just so much potential for cool stuff. To be fair, McGuire does show us some of the madness. Nancy went to the underworld (thus the frequent mentions of pomegranates), others went into a rainbow world, yet others lived in a zombie-infested place full of violence, or one full of vampires. But no  matter how gruesome or uninviting their world may seem to us outsiders, they all want to go back. The bit I found quite annoying was that there is a specific classification of worlds at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There are logic and nonsense worlds, which can be subdivided into even more categories. Nancy – as any good protagonist would – asks about this in the beginning but then seems to lose interest and drops the topic. I feel that if you go to the trouble of building your own system for a multiverse, it would be nice to let the readers get a small glimpse of it.

An even bigger problem for me was the complete lack of emotional impact. I can live without world building, without logic (this is fantasy, after all), even without much plot. But I need characters to hold on to, to understand, to feel something. Nancy’s slightly catatonic state was completely understandable. I don’t quite get why in her underworld, standing as still as a statue was so important, but okay, let’s roll with it. Nancy’s roomate Sumi may have been a sterotypical cloud cuckoo lander, but at least she brought some movement into a very slow, boring plot.

Speaking of plot. I expected a sort of anti-Harry Potter, a story of a girl feeling misplaced in this world, wanting to go back to the world of the dead, now finding her way in a school with others who feel just as much that they don’t belong. An anti-magic school if you like. But the book changes its mind and turns into a murder mystery. Which, okay fine. Except I didn’t really care about any of the murder victims or even about who did it and why. When the characters are so pale that they are barely cardboard, I find it difficult to care about their fate.

every heart a doorway cover detail

Instead of staying on the topic that drew me in (I know it’s not the author’s job to cater to my very specific needs, although I often wish it were :D), focusing on how these children had to leave a world behind, leave their adventures and – I assume – friends, and finding a place in this world, this novella deals mostly with the murders of several students and, occasionally, with people’s sexuality and gender identity. Sadly, that’s about the only positive thing I got out of this  – some character diversity. I did like both Kade and Nancy, although Nancy remains pretty pale throughout, but this may be due to how the underworld shaped her to be.

I’m not a writer, so I can’t put my finger on what exactly would have to be done differently to make this story good. But it just left me completely cold from beginning to end. Looking back at the entire novella, I don’t see the point. I didn’t like the plot, didn’t care for the characters, and the ending had no impact whatsoever. In fact, for a while I thought Nancy was going to kill herself to return to the underworld, which – drastic as it may be – would at least have been something proactive, something that comes with a cost, and would return her to the underworld. You can guess that this did not happen… The ending that did happen cheapens the entire point of the book.

All my problems with this book may very well be my own fault for having set my expectations too high or for having misunderstood the book description, but that doesn’t change that I really disliked Every Heart a Doorway. To me it felt like Seanan McGuire was trying to write a Cat Valente story and failed miserably. I’ll give the next book in the series a chance, but if that turns out to be equally boring, I will probably stick to McGuire’s other books.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

 

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

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Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent

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Do Want! – Upcoming Books on My Radar

I was browsing through io9’s guide for March and noticed it was time for another one of these excitement posts.

J. A. Nielsen – The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy #2) (March 1st)

Ever since The Booksmugglers’ glowing review of The False Prince, it has been sitting on my TBR pile. Given the fact it shares said “pile” with so many other books, I can afford to wait until the trilogy/series is finished (or nearly finished) before I start reading. I have no idea if I will actually like this but the Booksmugglers are pretty reliable in picking the awesome from the bad books.

runaway kingA kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE!

Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!

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Charles de Lint and Charles Vess – The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (March 5th)

Just look at that cover. If you’ve seen even one illustration of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust by Charles Vess, you know why I’m so excited. In addition, Charles de Lint has been on my radar for years and this book sounds just charming.

cats of tanglewood forestThe magic is all around you, if only you open your eyes….

Lillian Kindred spends her days exploring the Tanglewood Forest, a magical, rolling wilderness that she imagines to be full of fairies. The trouble is, Lillian has never seen a wisp of magic in her hills–until the day the cats of the forest save her life by transforming her into a kitten. Now Lillian must set out on a perilous adventure that will lead her through untamed lands of fabled creatures–from Old Mother Possum to the fearsome Bear People–to find a way to make things right.

In this whimsical, original folktale written and illustrated throughout in vibrant full color by two celebrated masters of modern fantasy, a young girl’s journey becomes an enchanting coming-of-age story about magic, friendship, and the courage to shape one’s own destiny.

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Seanan McGuire – Midnight Blue-Light Special (InCryptid #2) (March 5th)

I still haven’t read anything by Seanan McGuire or her alter ego Mira Grant (althouth I own a bunch of her books). But liking Seanan the way I do, just from listening to interviews and her delicious squees on the SF Squeecast, I cannot help but be excited anyway.

midnight blue-light specialCryptid, noun:
1. Any creature whose existence has been suggested but not proven scientifically. Term officially coined by cryptozoologist John E. Wall in 1983.
2. That thing that’s getting ready to eat your head.
3. See also: “monster.”

The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity–and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and when her work with the cryptid community took her to Manhattan, she thought she would finally be free to pursue competition-level dance in earnest. It didn’t quite work out that way…

But now, with the snake cult that was killing virgins all over Manhattan finally taken care of, Verity is ready to settle down for some serious ballroom dancing—until her on-again, off-again, semi-boyfriend Dominic De Luca, a member of the monster-hunting Covenant of St. George, informs her that the Covenant is on their way to assess the city’s readiness for a cryptid purge. With everything and everyone she loves on the line, there’s no way Verity can take that lying down.

Alliances will be tested, allies will be questioned, lives will be lost, and the talking mice in Verity’s apartment will immortalize everything as holy writ–assuming there’s anyone left standing when all is said and done. It’s a midnight blue-light special, and the sale of the day is on betrayal, deceit…and carnage.

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Ellen Datolow and Terri Windling (eds.) – Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells (March 19th)

In addition to reading more short fiction online, the bloggosphere has also pushed me to be interested in (print) anthologies. And this one sounds just up my alley. It doesn’t always have to be steampunk! I find something inherently magical about gaslamp fantasy, even if it comes without cogs and clockwork. Again, I admit, the cover decided it for me. Let’s not delude ourselves, even in the digital reading world, covers are still damn influential.

queen victoria's book of spellsFrom the extraordinary award-winning editor duo, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, comes an anthology with Gaslamp Fantasy as the theme. Furthermore, it will have 18 brand-new Tales not published before.

The Line-up:
“The Fairy Enterprise” by Jeffrey Ford
“From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvelous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)” by Genevieve Valentine
“The Memory Book” by Maureen McHugh
“Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells” by Delia Sherman
“La Reine D’Enfer” by Kathe Koja
“Briar Rose” by Elizabeth Wein
“The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear
“Smithfield” by James P. Blaylock
“The Unwanted Women of Surrey” by Kaaron Warren
“Charged” by Leanna Renee Hieber
“Mr. Splitfoot” by Dale Bailey
“Phosphorus” by Veronica Schanoes
“We Without Us Were Shadows” by Catherynne M. Valente
“The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer
“The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown” by Jane Yolen
“A Few Twigs He Left Behind” by Gregory Maguire
“Their Monstrous Minds” by Tanith Lee
“Estella Saves the Village” by Theodora Goss

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That’s it, folks. It looks like March is full of wonderful book releases. The ones above are the books I’ll definitely be getting this month. What are you excited for?