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

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