Children have always tumbled down rabbit holes, fallen through mirrors, been swept away by unseasonal floods or carried off by tornadoes. Children have always traveled, and because they are young and bright and full of contradictions, they haven’t always restricted their travel to the possible. Adulthood brings limitations like gravity and linear space and the idea that bedtime is a real thing, and not an artificially imposed curfew. Adults can still tumble down rabbit holes and into enchanted wardrobes, but it happens less and less with every year they live. Maybe this is a natural consequence of living in a world where being careful is a necessary survival trait, where logic wears away the potential for something bigger and better than the obvious. Childhood melts, and flights of fancy are replaced by rules. Tornados kill people: they don’t carry them off to magical worlds. Talking foxes are a sign of fever, not guides sent to start some grand adventure.
But children, ah, children. Children follow the foxes, and open the wardrobes, and peek beneath the bridge. Children climb the walls and fall down the wells and run the razor’s edge of possibility until sometimes, just sometimes, the possible surrenders and shows them the way to go home.
So begins Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third installment of McGuire's Wayward Children series. If you'd asked me why I was excited about this book before reading it, I could've given you a list of reasons -- but I'd forgotten just how magical the books are. By the time I got to "ah, children" not only did I remember the magic, I was under its spell.
Sometime after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, two residents of Eleanor West's Home are down at the pond (they returned from water-worlds, and this is the best they can get), when a naked girl lands in the pond (falling from apparently nowhere), demanding to see her mother, or at the very least, someone in charge. It turns out that this girl is Sumi's daughter -- the problem there is that Sumi died during Every Heart, so she didn't get to mature a bit, go back to her world, defeat the evil Queen, get married and have Rini. Now, the Timeline is catching up to her, and faster than you can say Marty McFly, Rini is starting to disappear, finger by finger, limb by limb. This doesn't sit well with her, as you can imagine.
I like existing. I'm not ready to unexist just because of stupid causality. I didn't invite stupid causality to my birthday party, it doesn't get to give me any presents.
So, four of the residents set off on a quest to bring Sumi back to life. This takes them across the U. S., into one of the worlds of the dead, and all around Sumi/Rini's nonsense world. There's heroism, mystery, sacrifice, triumph and cleverness all around, without which none of this would work, but with it all -- and a healthy dose of magic -- it's a plan so crazy that it just might work.
I don't want to talk too much about the characters apart from what I've already said (which is essentially nothing). In addition to Rini -- we have a nice mix of new to us and returning friends -- with one character that's new to the Home as well as to us. I absolutely enjoyed getting the bonus time with the returning characters, the new (to us) characters were exactly the kind of kids you hope to find in these books. Also, some of the revelations about some secondary characters serve to explain a lot about the way this particular multiverse came to be and it's pretty cool. So, basically, the character material in this novella is almost perfect.
I wasn't as taken with Down Among the Sticks and Bones as I was with Every Heart -- Every Heart was a wonderful mix of tragedy and violence with a sense of play (especially in the ideas and words) -- there was hope throughout the book, even when it was dark for everyone and there was little reason for it. Down Among was about dashed hope and tragedy in a world of tragedy, dashed hopes and violence; yes, there as a little play with the language, and some moments of triumph, but they were all overshadowed. Which was fine, it was the story that needed to be told, and I'm not complaining, but Beneath the Sugar Sky was more of a return to the tone of Every Heart, so I liked it more than Down Among -- I think it was a better book, too, but I could be wrong about it. I just know it was easier to like. There's definitely tragedy, there are hard choices to be made -- and I did say something about sacrifice -- but there's a strand of hope throughout that makes it so much easier to carry on.
One thing that has been on display throughout this series is a sense of play, a sense of fair tale worlds and logic reflected in the language McGuire uses -- you've seen bits of it already above, just one more and I'll call it good:
There was a door there, tall and imposing, the sort of door that belonged on a cathedral or a palace; the sort of door that said "keep out" far more loudly than it would ever dream of saying "come in."
You know exactly what that door looks like, and you have a great sense of the environment around it, too. Just from that one sentence. McGuire has a great sense of style on display in the Toby Daye and InCryptid books, which is turned up in the Indexed serials, but is probably best seen in these books -- capturing the feel of preternatural worlds has pushed her to unleash all of her pent-up linguistic magic. Even if I disliked the characters and stories she's telling in this series, I think the language would bring me back.
I'm obviously a pretty big Seanan McGuire fan -- just a quick glance at the archives will tell you that. But I'm willing to bet that even if I wasn't predisposed to like her work, this series would've made me one -- Beneath the Sugar Sky is a slice of literary perfection and I can't encourage you enough to try it.