Dark Horse 2020 – July to December

If you’re like us, then books have offered you a necessary coping mechanism during this endless downward spiral of a year. Our Dark Horse Initiative is one of many ways we combat that spiral. Every year, we search for promising debuts among the Sci-Fi and Fantasy pantheons and compile them into our Dark Horse list. 

One teeny-tiny glimmer of bookish hope for this hellscape of a year emerged as we collected our most anticipated 2020 debuts: we had too many. And if you’ve followed along, you know that we split our 2020 Dark Horse list into two halves to bring you more reviews of SFF debut novels. We’re chugging right along with our January-June list (some of the books were pushed to July or early August); after a few more reads we’ll wrap that half of the year up. Now, it’s time to share our Dark Horse picks for July through December of 2020. 

As always, we’ll aim to review these titles during the next six months to help you parse out which debuts are worth your time. The Quill To Live is your guide to every world but this one, and thank goodness, because this world needs a break right about now.

Also, if you need a guaranteed win, check out our top books of the first half of 2020 for some top-notch reads.

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  2. Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  3. The First Sister by Linden Lewis
  4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  5. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  6. Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
  7. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
  8. Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
  9. Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
  10. The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

The Book Rookie – The Hero of Ages

We’re back with another installment of The Book Rookie! This time, Alex and Andrew join cole to discuss The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson’s thrilling conclusion to the original Mistborn trilogy!

Just catching up? Listen to our discussions about Mistborn and The Well of Ascension before you dive in.

And enjoy our shiny new musical intro!

The Book Rookie is a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

Interview with Nadia Odunayo, Founder of The StoryGraph

Welcome to our special interview with Nadia Odunayo! Nadia is the founder of The StoryGraph, an online service that helps you find books to fit your mood. After you read the interview, head over to The StoryGraph to sign up and find your next read!

What is The StoryGraph and what does it do for readers?

The StoryGraph is a website that helps you to find perfect books for you based on your mood and the types of books you like to read.

Our magic feature is “Ordered for you.” Users fill out a short survey — it takes anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes to fill out — letting us know their favourite sorts of books to read, down to specific topics, types of authors, themes, genres etc. — and we order all of the books on our website for them based on how well they match their preferences.

Combine that with our filter menu, where you can filter down by moods, pace, genres, book size, and more, and you’re never more than a few clicks away from your next perfect book!

Can you tell us what sparked the idea and how The StoryGraph has evolved since you founded the site?

The StoryGraph started life as a side project to create and share personal reading lists on anything you wanted.

However, when I started showing early demos to people, I realised that it didn’t solve the biggest needs for readers: better tracking tools and having one place to consistently find great book recommendations.

That’s when I started to pivot the product towards what it is today!

How do you categorize books? Why moods?

Moods are the main ways to characterise books on The StoryGraph because when I was researching how users discovered new books to read, they often spoke about books they loved in relation to how it made them feel and wanting to find books that made them feel a similar way. And yet — there was nowhere to plug in those feelings and see what came out the other end. Until now!

What are the main moods on your StoryGraph profile?

Reflective, dark, and emotional.

What are your favorite books/authors?

Some of my favourite books are:

What was the hardest mood to categorize?

“Challenging” can be, well…challenging! Sometimes it can be because a book’s writing is dense or complicated, or because it can make you think hard about your beliefs, and then both of those things are incredibly dependent on who the reader is — what is complicated to someone else might be easily digestible to another. Then again, all of the moods are subjective — we try to find the labels for each book that the vast majority of readers would agree on! If readers disagree, they can express that in their reviews, and eventually we’ll use data from our community reviews to update the mood tags on each book.

Are there additional moods that you are hoping to add in the future?

Before building the beta site, I did a lot of research with the books community on Instagram to come up with the initial list of fourteen moods. The goal was: can we produce a relatively short list that covers every book?

So far it looks like this list is really working out, and if we don’t have to adapt the list then that would be great. That’s not to say a new mood won’t emerge in the future. But rather than us actively seeking to add one, I think the need for it will become obvious at some point based on people struggling to classify a certain group of books.

What features are you most excited to add to The StoryGraph?

I’m really looking forward to adding support for trigger/content warnings.

Books with sensitive content will be flagged on the site. On top of that, users will be able to specify which content they’re sensitive to in their “Ordered for you” preferences and books matching that content will be hidden away from those users.

It’s going to be a tricky problem to solve though, but I’m up for the challenge!

Finally, where can we find The StoryGraph on social platforms?

You can find us on Instagram (@the.StoryGraph) or Twitter (@thestorygraph).

I also write a 1-min read weekly newsletter explaining a little bit more about what’s going on behind the scenes. You can read some past issues and sign up right here.

Daytripper: Life in Snapshots

Twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá have inked their way into the graphic novel hall of fame with Daytripper. The Brazilian brothers crafted a genre-bending work of art that brought me joy from start to finish. 

Brás de Olivia Domingos writes endings–namely, obituaries. His dad is a world-famous writer, and Brás grapples with his own place in the world and whether he lives in his father’s shadow or will build on his father’s legacy. Daytripper follows Brás through his entire life, capturing little snapshots of the moments that have mattered to him. Each issue, collected here in a hefty but breezily readable volume, offers an impactful vignette that explores Brás’ life and death, as any reader will quickly find. 

Daytripper seems enshrined in an air of mystery, and some readers may feel the urge to “figure it out” or “solve” the riddles within. I recommend approaching it from a different angle: enjoy the stories of Daytripper as art, and live Brás’ life alongside him. Dwell on the details, but don’t parse them out with yarn and a bulletin board. Moon and Bá have a knack for putting a world–their worldon the page. The art, the characters, and the dialogue combine to form one powerhouse of a story chock-full of joy, loss, and sadness. The brothers have, in other words, condensed life onto the page. 

I won’t offer you much by way of a summary. Daytripper reads at a quick pace, and the stories within capture formative moments: first kiss, first love, the fading of friendship, having a child, and more. The volume’s back-cover blurb asks the question “But on the day that life begins, would he even notice?” Daytripper presents a number of possible contenders for the moment when life slaps you in the face and begs you to live it. 

But the point, as you may have guessed, is that none of these moments can possibly define a life. Instead, they shape it. Every day, new moments and fresh experiences glom onto the ever-shifting mold of your path through the universe, and you’re responsible for holding on to them or letting them pass. Nobody, no all-knowing force, will tell you when to pay attention, and Brás’ stories teach that lesson artfully. 

Daytripper offers some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel, and it’s matched exquisitely by deft characterization and poignant stories. I know this is ostensibly a review of the piece, but I hesitate to dive any deeper. Just as the graphic novel shows Brás’ personal journey, your reading of Daytripper will inevitably strike you in a different way than mine did for me. I loved it, and I hope you do too.

Rating: Daytripper – 9.0/10

Cuphead Carnival Chaos: A Gollywompin’ Good Time

When you see Cuphead Carnival Chaos on shelves, be they virtual or digital, you may ask yourself: who is this book for? Fair question. There are two answers. One is obvious, and the other is semi-obvious. The obvious answer: Cuphead Carnival Chaos is for fans of Cuphead. The semi-obvious answer is that this book is for kids. I know nothing about kids, other than having virtually identical hobbies to most elementary-level young-ins. Carnival Chaos won’t reinvigorate your love of prose, nor will it take your breath away with nuanced characters. You know what it will do, though? Make you exhale through your nose in that pseudo-laugh we all do when nobody else is around to laugh with us. 

So if you’re a kid (or you have one) who could use a fun little book, pick this one up. If you’re a Cuphead fan looking to dive deeper into the lore, then you probably look like this:

Anyway, to the book. Ron Bates does a wallopin’ good job at capturing the essence of the Inkwell Isles in Carnival Chaos. You’re on an adult fantasy/sci-fi review website, so if you’re reading this review I’ll just assume you fall into that Cuphead fan bucket I mentioned earlier. Here’s the skinny, fellow Cuphead fanatic: this book evokes the 1930s cartoony feel of the Cuphead universe. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s wacky. But it’s also–as I warned you–for kids. Cuphead Carnival Chaos expands on Cuphead’s world in tame ways. For example, Cuphead apparently goes to grade school (didn’t he make a deal with the Devil at a CASINO in the video game?!), loves baseball, and can’t resist the allure of an obviously villainous carnival that just happens to show up on the day of Elder Kettle’s surprise birthday party. 

Carnival Chaos’ paper-thin plot is just fine, to be honest. Cuphead and his pal (actually his brother, but you can be friends with your brother, I think my sister considers me a friend… anyway) Mugman are tasked with buying Elder Kettle a gift, but the temptations of the titular carnival whisk them away into a world of treachery, thievery, and classic carney scams. The story serves more as a vehicle through which we experience the Inkwell Isles and their many wonders than it does as a worthwhile narrative, and that’s okay in a book marketed to kids and that nerd pictured above. 

When you pick up Carnival Chaos, you’ll be treated to such verbal morsels as “humdinger” and “gollywompers.” Bates plays around with language in a way completely befitting Cuphead’s signature style. My eyes awooo-gah-ed out of their sockets a few times to appreciate the linguistic inventions on the page. The imagery packs a punch, too. I remember one segment vividly, in which Cuphead is a nickel short when he’s paying for an item. He reaches into his pocket and his hand, walking like a person using the index and middle fingers as legs, traipses through “pocket world,” a literal universe made of lint in his pocket. The hand asks one of pocket world’s citizens for a coin. The linty denizens oblige, and I can only assume Cuphead is their god and is swindling them and/or dropping huge metal discs onto the poor saps. But damn if that visual isn’t striking as heckaroo. 

I have one gripe with Carnival Chaos, and it has nothing to do with the writing, story, or characters. My edition of the novel skipped from page 220 to 253. From there, it continued through to the end, then resumed on page 221 after the author bio. Unless this is some late-90s choose your own adventure BS (trust me, it’s not), it’s just a blatant misprint. I sat, shook, staring blankly at the page and wondering what I had missed for about five minutes before I realized the error. And I’m a 28-year-old man. Maybe sharp-minded youth will notice the issue faster, but buyer beware. 

Carnival Chaos, like its video game source material, is fun and wacky. As a kids’ book, it’s nowhere near as gut-wrenchingly difficult as the game is, but it does offer a bright story that showcases author Ron Bates’ respect for the Cuphead universe. He had “too much fun” writing the book, according to his bio appearing smack-dab in the middle of the story, and it shows even beyond the misprint. 

Rating: Cuphead Carnival Chaos – 8.0/10

5 Lighthearted Reads for Dreary Times

Let’s get straight to the point: everything is tough right now. And rather than regurgitate the buzzwords and messaging you see on all your social platforms, I’d like to shift gears and offer you a little light to get through some dark times. Here are five lighthearted reads that will put a smile on your face!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune 

This book. This. Friggin’. Book. I turned the final page of The House in the Cerulean Sea with glistening, teary eyes and a smile so large it probably threw Earth’s gravity off-kilter (if you felt that, I’m sorry–should be back to normal now). TJ Klune has served up an unassuming book with an unassuming protagonist that just wrecks you by the end. It’s a tale of found family and unconditional love and fighting for what’s right in the face of adversity. It’s told with careful attention to detail and a glimmer of hope. Our recent review (a well-deserved 10/10, by the way) covers the main points, but here’s the skinny: it’s a glorious fantasy novel featuring a diverse cast of characters and a world exploding with magic. For what it’s worth, I can remember two books EVER making me cry, and this is one of them (the other being City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett, but those were tears of well-earned sadness). 

For the love of all that you hold dear, read this book. 

Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle

You may have seen these charming aliens gracing your Instagram feed. Nathan W Pyle’s account of the same name features cute-as-heck extra-terrestrials experiencing the wonders of Earth through fresh eyes. The book (and its June-slated sequel, Stranger Planet), collects these charming cartoons and reignites the beauty in everyday things that we too often take for granted. 

To Pyle’s aliens, sunburn is an adventure and cats are mysteries to solve. No familiar scenario or phenomenon is exempt from the adoration of the creatures, and every panel offers thoughtful observations on everyday life and human emotion. 

Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

Oh, you already finished Strange Planet but you can’t wait for the sequel? You need another charming illustrated exploration of Earth through an extra-terrestrial’s eyes? Dang, sorry I can’t hel–BAM. Here’s Jomny Sun’s charmingly magnificent masterpiece. Jomny, a misfit alien, is sent to study earth. He befriends animals and plants. He discovers what it means to feel. He learns that it’s okay to be sad just as much as it’s okay to be happy. 

Jomny Sun presents a lovely view of humanity, and every single page teaches some sort of life lesson. I’ll leave you with a personal favorite, aliebn misspellings-and-all: “I’ve been wonderimg why the lonely ones make the most beautifubl music and i thimk its because theyre the ones most invested in filling the silence.”

Year Zero by Rob Reid

Sometimes, you need a rich sci-fi world complete with intergalactic federations, societies on the brink of war, and weapons capable of destroying entire solar systems. Sometimes, you need a humorous sci-fi romp in which aliens have been illegally streaming Earth music for years and, as a result, owe us trillions upon trillions of dollars. For those in need of the latter, I offer you Year Zero.

Backed by a wealth of his industry knowledge as the founder of Rhapsody, Rob Reid weaves a hilarious tale of intergalactic copyright infringement and piracy. It’s a hoot from start-to-finish, and while Year Zero explores some important questions about art and consumption in the space-travel age, it’s really just a straight-up adventure that pokes a lot of fun at many of our artistic institutions. Oh, and it’s kind of a love letter to music as a whole. 

If you’re looking for an overly-hyphenatedly-described genre-defining space-faring sci-fi mega-masterpiece, well…*gestures to The Expanse.* If you want to heed the words of Cyndi Lauper and sneak in a few chuckles, check out Year Zero

What If? By Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe’s collection of “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions” induced more riotous laughter in me than any book I’ve read in recent memory. A former NASA employee and all-around talented writer, Munroe approaches said questions with a flair for scientific accuracy and a sharp penchant for gut-busting punchlines. Throw in the hilarious stick-figure comics, and you’ve got the full package. 

Here are some of the questions on display: “How much force power can Yoda output?” “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change color?” “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?”

So, yeah, things get crazy. What If? provides a refreshing escape from these tough times into rampant absurdity.

Come Tumbling Down – Sisterhood Meets Finality

Come Tumbling Down Cover

Seanan McGuire’s fifth Wayward Children novella brings us once again to Eleanor West’s home for the titular youth. It also returns to the story of Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill, sisters whose collective tale of sibling love and loss rises to a volcanic climax in Come Tumbling Down. Beware–spoilers from previous Wayward Children installments ahead!

Jack and Jill have long been two of this series’ deepest, most intriguing characters, and Come Tumbling Down brings their arc to a heavy, satisfying conclusion. I don’t know for sure if McGuire has future (or prequel) plans for the pair, but my hopes are high that this outing remains their last. 

Come Tumbling Down opens on Jack’s dramatic return to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the hands of her significant other, Alexis. Returning staples Christopher, Cade, and Cora quickly find that Jack’s in a heap of trouble: Jill has forced her twin to switch bodies so her master, a vicious vampire from the Moors, can turn Jill into a vampiric life companion. Jill’s body, in which Jack now resides, has been resurrected, and thus can no longer become a vampire (rules are rules). More jarring for Jack, perhaps, is that her brain cannot cope with the shock of being thrust into a new body. She seeks the help of her school friends to bring justice upon Jill and return to her own corporeal form.

Revisiting The Moors is a real treat in Come Tumbling Down. Jack and Jill’s brutal chosen world continues to ask devastating questions about science and limitations. When everything is possible, what shouldn’t you do? The Moors are filled with monsters and powerful creatures all precariously perched in a delicate balance, with factions gaining the upper hand but never taking over completely. It’s a world where balance and brutality beget growth and progress, and Seanan McGuire’s worldbuilding prowess is on full display here. 

It’s a world that yearns for adventure, and McGuire offers it in spades. The group’s journey through The Moors offers a deep dive into the inner workings of the setting. The only downside here is the pacing. Jack ushers her friends through a gauntlet of sights, sounds, and places that are entirely new to the group, but the short runtime requires a breezy jaunt through each narrative beat. As usual, the prose provides beautiful renderings of these locales and inhabitants, but the quickfire nature of the plot makes big events feel small and low-stakes. One exception, however, is Jack’s final confrontation with her sister. Their explosive final encounter boils over with all the turmoil of their past differences and disagreements, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough during the novella’s final stretch. I can’t say much else here for fear of outright spoilers, but if you’re even the tiniest bit invested in Jack and Jill, you’ll want to read every last word of this installment. 

There’s not much more to say about the characters that I haven’t touched on in previous reviews. There are a few new faces–a water demigod named Gideon stands out as my favorite–and our familiar cast of misfits remains as charming as ever. Christopher still earns the “underutilized” award, and I desperately hope that he gets a starring role in one of the upcoming books. Cora, of Beneath the Sugar Sky fame, has a marvelous role to play in Come Tumbling Down, and I’m looking forward to more from her as well. 

Come Tumbling Down stretches the boundaries of the Wayward Children world (or worlds, I suppose), planting seeds for deeper character stories to come. Most impactful, though, is the effortless way McGuire ties the knot on a multi-book arc for sisters Jack and Jill. 

Rating: Come Tumbling Down – 8.5/10

In an Absent Dream – Indecision Meets Duality

In an Absent Dream marks a return to form for Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which faltered in book three after its impressive first and second installments. Here, we learn the backstory of Lundy, a character left tragically underexplored in Every Heart A Doorway

Lundy’s arc in Every Heart was short but sweet, and her interactions with the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children opened up an entire world of questions about her history with portal worlds. I’m saying this as vaguely as possible to avoid spoilers for In an Absent Dream, but this much I can divulge: the novella has a marvelous, heartbreaking payoff that leads right up to Lundy’s Every Heart narrative. 

We meet Katherine Lundy (never Katie, Kat, or Kathy) in her early days of childhood. She follows the rules. She reads lots of books. Her father is the principal of her school, and her classmates shun her for fear of being reprimanded by his strict hand. She discovers the Goblin Market, a fantasy world inhabited by a hodge-podge of magical creatures where the rules are enforced by some intangible, ever-present enchantment. The Goblin Market’s unique magic forces its inhabitants to provide “fair value” for everything, which is agreed upon by two parties. As we charmingly see here, a pie-maker may decide that pencils are of great value and could buy you two pies per day for a full year. Make an open-ended request, though, and your fellow barterer could decide that your life is fair value; to avoid loopholes like this, residents must make general statements about their needs instead of outright asking for things. There’s a dark side, though; incur too much debt, and you slowly transform into a bird. You can buy your way back to humanity (or the magical beast’s equivalent of it), but it’s a long road–birds can only offer so much value. Lundy befriends Moon, a girl slightly indebted and feathery, but not beyond recovery, and the two explore the intricacies of The Goblin Market together. 

The tale that follows is easily McGuire’s strongest outing in this wonderful and macabre intersection of our world and the fantasy worlds that connect to it. Unlike the other worlds we’ve encountered throughout the series, The Goblin Market’s presence is more transient, allowing Lundy to leave and return for various stretches of time. However, she’s told from the start that she must make a choice before she turns 18: stay in the Market or stay with her family in the “real” world. 

Lundy’s story brims with indecision and streams of consciousness that coalesce into a dynamic and relatable character. She adores the wonder and the magically enforced rules of the market. She loves that fair value puts everyone there on a level playing field; nobody asks for more than what they need and nobody offers more than they can give. To Lundy, the world makes sense. However, as she makes multiple journeys between The Market and her original home, she must come to terms with the choice she knows she must make. And with every trip, the choice becomes more difficult. McGuire’s sharp focus on such a beautiful character–and how torn she is by the looming choice set before her– sets this novella apart from its series’ brethren, and by the time I turned the final page, Lundy shot to the top of my completely real “favorite Wayward Children characters” list. 

Speaking of characters, this installment is chock-full of great ones. Moon is an interesting foil to Lundy. She knows more about the Goblin Market’s rules but is more careless with them. She has a reckless streak that both intrigues and confuses Lundy. The dynamism between the two makes for some satisfying character moments. Other unexpected spotlight-stealers include The Archivist, Lundy’s pseudo-guardian in the Market, and Lundy’s actual father, who has a secret that slowly unravels throughout the tale. 

Dichotomy rests at the heart of In an Absent Dream. Lundy’s deadline to decide between two worlds is chief among them, but it’s more of a lingering presence. Her two actual worlds–her home and the Goblin Market–exist in stark contrast to one another. Lundy discovers sisterly and familial love in our world, even as she watches her family break down in light of her long leaves of absence. In the Market, she finds a comforting world that finally makes sense to her, where fair value drives everyone’s actions. By exploring the two biggest extremes of Lundy’s life, McGuire busts open a number of questions about structure, rules, breaking them, and fitting in. 

If there’s one minuscule quibble I could make about this book, it’s the worldbuilding. The Goblin Market proves a fascinating setting and McGuire laces it with small details that make it feel real. But it simultaneously feels very small and contained, and many of Lundy’s more whimsical adventures are recounted as memories or in passing conversation. Don’t take this as an outright criticism, though. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into, and McGuire has a knack for giving just enough detail to build a vibrant and interesting setting within a small page count.

All of these wonderful components come together for a heartwrenching ending that had me shaking as I turned the final pages. In an Absent Dream doesn’t tie itself in a neat little bow. It ends with an emotional gut-punch that left me reeling for hours after I closed the book.

Following a turbulent Wayward Children outing in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire brought me back in, full-force, with In an Absent Dream. This is the story I’ve wanted from this series all along, and I absolutely, unabashedly, unequivocally loved it. 

Rating: In an Absent Dream – 9.0/10

Beneath the Sugar Sky – Nonsense Meets Mortality

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns, if only for a moment, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. The third novella in the aptly named Wayward Children series brings us back to present-day following Jack and Jill’s prequel adventure in Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This pattern of alternating past-present stories will continue, according to author Seanan McGuire in this Twitter thread, through at least book eight in the series! But for now, let’s focus on this third installment. Spoilers follow, particularly for Every Heart a Doorway, so proceed with caution.

Beneath the Sugar Sky introduces Cora, a new student at Eleanor West’s school. Cora comes from The Trenches, where she lived her otherwordly years as a mermaid. Cora and her friend Nadya (who traveled to the watery world of Belyrekka, making the two an apt pair) are exploring the pond on school grounds when a young woman falls, seemingly from nowhere, into the water. The newcomer introduces herself as Rini, daughter of Sumi. *Pause for effect.* Yes, she’s the daughter of Sumi, the first victim of Every Heart’s serial murderer. Rini hails from Confection, a land comprised of baked goods, soda, and literal tons of sugar. Her existence itself is a miracle, seeing as her purported mother died a teenager before she ever met Rini’s father. But it’s possible because Confection is a “nonsense” world, dictated by its own rules and timelines but beholden to no others. However, Rini is disappearing after her mother’s untimely death, so a Confection wizard gives her a way to travel between worlds, and she ventures to Eleanor’s School for help. 

There are literal and figurative worlds of themes to explore in Beneath the Sugar Sky. The characters, plot, and themes mix together in a batter worthy of Confection’s countless baked goods, but after some time in the metaphorical oven, those parts don’t coalesce into a satisfying treat. 

That said, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers some distinctly positive ideas. Cora and Nadya both explore body positivity in compelling ways. Cora is overweight, and she openly calls herself “fat.” But she comes from a world where size doesn’t matter, and the weightlessness of living underwater allows her to shed any insecurities about her weight. These learnings carry over into the real world, where she sees judgmental eyes and hears judgmental words but remains confident and poised as ever. Nadya’s right arm is missing below the elbow, and she’s part of a storyline late in the novella (which I won’t spoil here) that echoes Cora’s sentiments and sends a powerful message about being comfortable in one’s own skin. McGuire elegantly discusses body image and positivity through these two new characters, and it’s genuinely inspiring stuff to read. So far, Wayward Children has excelled at conveying strong morals. 

Powerful message aside, Beneath the Sugar Sky suffers from a weak plot and low stakes. The characters shine, as always, but their involvement in Rini’s story doesn’t make much sense. Cora never knew Sumi and just met Rini, yet she embarks on the quest to save both without much thought. It’s a kind gesture, and I’d overlook it, but the plot continues meandering through weird whirls of wackiness (much like this sentence) straight through to the end. Cora and Nadya are accompanied by Kade (a Fairyland reject and Every Heart staple) and Christopher, who can reanimate skeletons with his bone flute (also an Every Heart staple, though he gets more well-deserved screen time here). The ragtag bunch decides that reconstructing Sumi is the best path forward, so they set out on a quest of sorts to revive her. I’ll spare the spoilerific details here, but the crew travels to two separate portal worlds on their quest to save Rini and Sumi. 

Confection is the primary setting, and we’re whisked along as readers through various locales without any real chance to take it all in. Confection’s nonsensical nature feels like a crutch, allowing the characters to duck and weave, avoiding any real danger. Just when the stakes could spark an adrenaline rush, the world throws curveball solutions that allow Cora and her companions to brush aside every threat that comes their way. Would-be emotional moments are stilted by the plot’s racing pace as it speeds toward a conclusion. As I read the conclusion, I asked myself “Did I miss something?” And I don’t think I did–the ingredients of Sugar Sky don’t have the time they need to rise into a delicious morsel. 

While it’s hard to buy into the plot and the stakes of Sugar Sky, there’s still plenty to love. McGuire’s positive messages and morals shine through despite the book’s weaknesses. The lure of doors to new worlds still rings in my head as I journey through the series, and visiting those worlds is a real treat.

Beneath the Sugar Sky: 6.5/10