Yet another wayward child discovers a world beyond her wildest dreams in Across the Green Grass Fields. Seanan McGuire’s sixth novella installment in the Wayward Children series hobbled across the finish line, leaving me to draw a personal conclusion: it’s time for me to part with this series. It may not be that time for you, though, and that’s okay.
But before I dive into the “why” of it all, feel free to peruse my reviews of the previous five installments:
Maybe you’ve been around for a while and have already seen those reviews on the site. Or maybe you read them for the first time just now. Or maybe you clicked them and scrolled to see how I rated each installment. Whichever method you chose, you’ll have found that I generally enjoy Wayward Children, at least enough for those scores to average out to an 8. I stand by those scores, and I think there’s something very special about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children universe. It’s just not special for me anymore.
We’re here to talk about Across the Green Grass Fields, though, and this is the book that finally sparked some much-needed introspection about the series.
Regan is different. The other girls in her school are growing up faster than she is, blossoming in ways her body doesn’t yet comprehend. Her “best friend” Laurel sets forth strict limitations on what it means to be a girl, and anyone who does something too weird or boyish gets ostracized and isolated thanks to Laurel’s heavy restrictions. Regan has been able to fly under Laurel’s radar while keeping her intense love of horses relatively separate from the relationship. But as the other girls start to hit puberty, Regan’s differences from the other girls appear more starkly, and she asks her parents if there’s something wrong with her. They reveal that she is intersex, and that she won’t experience puberty in the same way that her classmates will. Regan confides this in Laurel, who immediately turns on Regan and calls her a “boy.” Regan runs from school and stumbles into another world through a forested doorway. In the Hooflands, Regan’s beloved equine friends rule: centaurs, kelpies, perytons, and unicorns inhabit the world. She falls in with a pack of centaurs for five years all the while slowly allowing her former life in our world to fade.
This narrative arc shares many similarities with other Wayward Children installments. “Misfit child finding a gateway to a new world” is quite literally the premise of the series, though there’s always a healthy portion of “everything isn’t what it seems.” All of this rings true in Across the Green Grass Fields, but for me it felt like a veil had been lifted and I saw the series in a different way.
Regan’s adventures in the Hooflands didn’t hook me. The world is packed with equine beings, and beyond simple facts and limitations (Centaurs and other hoofed creatures can’t climb trees, for example), they don’t feel any different from humans. You can read this as a commentary, a revelation that differences make us unique and lovable rather than lesser. But in Across the Green Grass Fields, this results in the Hooflands feeling more like a slightly altered reflection of our world rather than a completely new one. That aura cements itself even further as more of the world is revealed. McGuire does a lot of telling: there’s a Fair where centaurs sometimes meet with their husbands. You can buy pies and food and other treats at the Fair. You can trade goods. But precious few details actually serve to flesh out the world. The Hooflands becomes a half-complete fill-in-the-blank. I had the same issue with In an Absent Dream to a lesser extent, but Across the Green Grass Fields just didn’t sit right.
I felt the same way about Regan. Talk about wasted potential. She’s an intersex protagonist who is obviously struggling to cope with her identity, but as soon as she reaches the Hooflands, much of that storyline disappears and she instead fully immerses herself into the world of the Centaurs and unicorns. All the while, there’s mention that Regan, as a human, must see the Queen, but only when it’s time. Humans only come to the Hooflands when the world needs saving, or so the legends say. But Regan and her flock of centaurs simply hide from the Queen for five years. After that time’s up, Regan seeks an audience with the Queen, who nobody has ever actually seen, and knots are tied up with rather hilarious speed. The novella rushes to a conclusion faster than any of its predecessors, and it left me wanting.
Some of these gripes will inevitably be personal. If you’re enamored with horses and similar beasts, you may positively love this story. If you enjoy McGuire’s quickfire novella approach to the series, you’ll likely want to keep reading. But for me, Across the Green Grass Fields highlighted problems that I was previously content to overlook in the previous books: slow/minimal worldbuilding, compact narratives, and thin characters. That’s not to say all of those things are true for every Wayward Children book. But one or more of those problems appears in each one. The simple but big realization that happened for me was this: I’m reading these to add to my total book count for the year and not because I actually want to. And when that’s the feeling you get from a series, it’s time to migrate to greener pastures.
An unconventional review? Absolutely. And I did that on purpose to make it abundantly clear that if you’ve enjoyed Wayward Children up to and including this book, you should by all means continue. There’s some fantastic work from McGuire here, and the book community’s love for this series is often well-earned. I’m no longer the audience for these books, though, and for that reason, it’s time to head back toward the epic fantasies I adore the most. As McGuire’s doorways all say, you have to “Be Sure.” And in this case, I am.
Farewell, Wayward Children, and I wish you all the best.
Rating: Across the Green Grass Fields – 6.5/10 -Cole
So you are sitting at home, reading a great fantasy book, and you think to yourself, “man, I wish I could pull every friend, family member, and random child on the street into this amazing hobby… but what are the best books to get someone into the genre?” Look no further random person I am asking extremely specific rhetorical questions to. Below is a list – well, actually three lists – that provide perfect material for converting almost any kind of person (or at least three kinds) into a fantasy reader. This method has a 100% success rate with the three people I tried it on, so have absolutely no doubt it will always work for you. No need to thank me, your enormous donations to the site via using our Bookshop page to purchase books is thanks enough – and it helps support authors and bookstores!
But actually, the following lists are all great examples of extremely accessible books for different ages, life stages, and mentalities. Hopefully, someone will find these helpful in bringing people they care about into the loving and wonderful fantasy family. Books with hyperlinks in their titles lead to their reviews!
Books to Get Teens and Young Adults Into Fantasy at an Early Age (Or BtGTaYAIFaaEA for short): If you want to give someone the lifelong gift of fantasy books, the best way to do that is get to them at a young age when their mind is malleable. Below are a number of books that are good for all ages, but are particularly good at capturing a spark of passion in younger readers. These books are easy to read and digest, showcase some of the best classic ideas in the fantasy genre, and are just fun and imaginative – perfect to show new readers some of the best of what the genre has to offer.
Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
Mistbornhas an easy-to-grasp but incredibly layered story, a defined roster of magic and monsters, and fantastic character development. The Mistborn trilogy serves as an excellent fantasy starting point because it’s a taste of what top-notch storytelling and a melting pot of captivating ideas can do. New fantasy readers will likely find Mistborn a great gateway to the genre because it mixes all of these elements with relatable themes and simple, elegant prose. If you’re looking for your first fantasy book, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Brandon Sanderson.
Added bonus–here’s our chat about Mistborn, in which a first-time Sanderson reader takes the plunge.
Spellslingerhas a relatable protagonist, a fun companion animal, witty dialogue, ambiance and style based on card sharks, and a wild west setting. The main character is a perfect self-insert for newer readers and the supporting cast is filled with teachers and mentors that teen (and older) readers tend to love. It’s got a plot with tons of twists that are hard to see coming, but the themes are very accessible and easy to digest without being hamfisted. This six-book series by Sebastian de Castell is an amazing entry point for anyone.
The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, is one of the cornerstones of classic fantasy and practically defined the chosen one trope in modern fantasy. Reading it gives you an enormous appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the story is beloved by thousands of fantasy fans for good reason. But, what makes it great for newer readers is its huge page count and epic storyline. Many newer readers prefer to stick to a single series or story as they get their baring in a genre and The Wheel of Time with its fourteen books has content to spare. In addition, its genuinely epic scope and story will be mindblowing to readers who want their books to be bigger and grander.
Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton
Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands is a solid entry point for fantasy initiates thanks to its incredible world and relatable characters. It has a sweeping narrative that highlights how fun (and dangerous) a journey into the unknown can be. Plus, protagonist Amani’s self-discovery arc carries with it a lot of power, the type literary fiction readers might be used to. But the primary reason I recommend this to fantasy newcomers is the exquisite melding of different genre elements. There’s sharpshooting, djinni, and a desert world all packaged in a story of self-realization and immense growth.
Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway opens the Wayward Childrenseries. The saga tells stories of children who have returned from magical, fantastical, and brutal worlds and must cope with coming back to our reality. New fantasy initiates will enjoy McGuires deft handling of heavy themes mixed with the whimsical worlds the titular children visit. Wayward Children as a whole skews toward an older demographic (swearing, thematic elements), resting on the thin line between teen and adult fantasy. Every Heart A Doorway fuses our world with infinite fantasy locales, giving you a deep-dive into the possibilities of the genre. It’s an excellent starting point for newcomers with its short page-length and hard-hitting explorations of the real-world impact of portals to strange lands.
Books to Help Readers Transition From YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy: One of the most powerful moments of my reading experience was when I picked up my first true adult fantasy book. It was The Black Company, which I have spoken a ton about already, and it showed me that fantasy could be so much more than mindless escapism. This book opened the door to heavier concepts, tons of new ideas, and a whole ocean of content that helped me grow and evolve as a person in my early 20s. If you, or someone you know, are looking to move from Harry Potter to something with a little more depth – these are the books for you.
Hey look, it’s the series I just mentioned in the introduction. I have a lot of things to say about The Black Company, by Glen Cook, much of which you can find here in one of our most popular posts. But, if I had to boil it all down to a single line it’s this: while much of fantasy helps you flee the troubles of reality via escapism – The Black Company instead uses escapism to force you to look closely at the horrors of reality, namely war. This series is a window into what it was like to be a part of a war and it is haunting. It is a powerful piece that will place you in the shoes of a number of people very different to yourself and help you understand what they went through. For me, reading TBC was an inspirational moment that taught me the power of empathy and stories and how fantasy can help us better understand our fellow man and the real world.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
According to posters in my elementary school library, reading is FUNdamental. And no book is as fun or fundamentally funny as The Lies Of Locke Lamora. First, just say that title out loud. Fun, right? You’re gonna feel that way on every single page of Scott Lynch’s humorous fantastical heist. The prose is poetic and breezy. The jokes are constant. The plot resembles an M.C. Escher painting in the best possible way. The setting (essentially fantasy Venice) is breathtaking. And the characters are the chef’s kiss of it all. I’ve never had more fun reading a book than I did with The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a daring novel that showcases just how entertaining fantasy can be, but its large size and layered plot do a lot to ease new readers into bigger novels.
Have your cake and eat it too. The Waking Fire is one third kick ass protagonists from different walks of life, one third giant dangerous dragons, and one third about how capitalism is a nightmare. This book is the shore between a sea of fun and a hard rocky beach of poignant criticisms of how our world works. One of the best parts about The Waking Fire is that you get out what you put in. If you just want a fun adventure story about people finding lost treasure – it can do that. If you want to explore heavy themes about how our reliance on substances that are destroying the Earth will eventually kill us all – it can do that as well. It’s the pitch hitter of transition adult fantasy.
The Deep – Rivers Solomon
The Deep, by its nature as a novella, is short, sweet and packed to brim with personality and world. Rivers Solomon does a lot of work in this book, introducing you to a world so vastly different than our own, but born of our crimes. Solomon fully immerses the reader in something special, positing a world built by the descendants of women thrown overboard in the slave trade. There is pain, and empathy abound in the story, but glimmers of hope sparkle like impossible rays of light on the dark ocean floor.
Books to Convince Serious Readers of Other Genres to Give Fantasy a Chance: The fantasy genre is the king of escapism, but it has so much more to offer. Unfortunately, in my years on this planet, I have run into any number of people who dismiss fantasy as elves, magic, and fluffy light adventures. Often the best way to convince people to give fantasy a chance is to ease them in with books that are closer to fiction with fantasy undertones. The following is a list of great bridge books to get people to slide into the fantasy genre sideways.
“There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an absolute powerhouse of a book. With absolutely outstanding prose, it sits somewhere between fantasy, historical fiction, and traditional fiction. It’s the story of small people in a big world trying to accomplish great things and find meaning in their lives. It is a hauntingly beautiful story about the human condition, and if you hand it to someone and they come back and say “sorry, I am just not into fantasy” I refuse to believe they even tried to read it. This book can make even the most stonehearted unbeliever cry.
If there is one thing that serious adults understand it is the soulless crushing weight of a job sucking the joy out of life – so why not explore a slightly more fun fantasy version with corporate necromancy! Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, is a book that serves up adult workplace escapism. It is a part of a series of stories about a modern world much like our own where magic and gods run rampant. It combines the troubles of your current life with an undercurrent of magic and provides a welcome relief in the form of incredible stories of triumph in a world much like our own. It’s also one of the weirder and more unique fantasy reads I regularly recommend and it does a great job showcasing how authors are constantly stretching the boundaries of what the fantasy genre is. I originally came across Three Parts Dead in a book club and every single person loved it – and I am sure you and the readers you give it to will as well.
I almost feel like I shouldn’t have to qualify this one due to its popularity, but here I go. It’s a love story between two dueling stage magicians who are using actual magic to one up each other as they try to win a competition for their lives. You have to have a cold, dead, unfeeling heart to not like this one. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a monument to the aesthetic power of incredible prose, fulfilling and relatable characters, and wonderful stories. The magic is quiet, subtle, and easy to ignore if the person reading isn’t into spells and magic system. But, the book also is a love letter to the mystery and beauty that magic can birth, making it a great salesman for the genre as a whole.
T.J. Klune’s The House In The Cerulean Seais one of the best books of 2020. Klune’s charming story features Linus Baker, a by-the-books case worker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. He gets sent on a unique assignment to a house where some extraordinary children are under the care of a mysterious man named Arthur Parnassus. Linus’ learns a lot about himself even as he investigates the conditions at Parnassus’ unconventional homestead. Cerulean Sea is heartwarming, charming, and a fantastic fit for readers who haven’t taken the fantasy plunge. There’s a reason we gave it a perfect 10. Cerulean Sea has a bevy of literary fiction elements blended nicely with a healthy dose of the whimsical. I’ve shared this book even with vehement lit-fic purists, and each one loved it.
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best known novel The Shadow of the Wind is, in a word, magical. It follows Daniel, a young man who discovers a book by an elusive author named Julian Carax, and makes it his goal to find his other works, and if he’s lucky, Carax himself. It’s honestly hard to describe what makes this book great without sitting you down in a big mansion library with the fire as the only light and reading it to you. Though it’s translated from Spanish, it reads like a painting. There are so many moments that still run chills up my spine. If you’re worried about it being about a kid on the verge of adulthood, don’t. Zafón perfectly bridges the gap between the world weary reality of being an adult with the magical discovery of being a child, igniting a joy I rarely feel when reading such stories. It’s not all lighthearted as the story takes place in post Civil War Spain, and as more of Carax’s life is revealed, the relationship between sadness, trauma and art is explored and Zafon has no easy answers. Ultimately, Shadow of the Wind is about rediscovering the magic of childhood and the ways in which growing up can hamper the creative soul within everyone.
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.
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.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire’s first prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, offers brutal ruminations on the nature of childhood and the implications of growing up. This story, starring twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jill (before you ask–yes, there are plenty of references to the nursery rhyme. No, they’re not overdone), paints a sweeping picture of a difficult upbringing and self-discovery. Seanan McGuire explores the darkest corners of individuality and coming of age while giving us a much-needed injection of Jack and Jill, two key characters from Every Heart.
Jack and Jill are thrust into life after their unfit parents decide to have children for no good reason. The book’s first third collects a series of vignette-ish descriptions of their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, and their stubborn natures. They want kids to show them off, to earn social status, and to mold them into something convenient rather than unique. Jack and Jill, born into this mindset, find a temporary savior in Gemma Lou, their paternal grandmother. Until they’re five years old, Gemma Lou teaches Jack and Jill to think for themselves, at least as well as a toddler can. When Chester and Serena abruptly eject Gemma Lou from the twins’ lives, Jack and Jill must look out for one another. The years that follow breeze by within a single chapter as Jack and Jill struggle against the strict barriers their parents have erected. It is only when they turn twelve that everything changes. Jack and Jill discover a hidden staircase to another world in what was once their grandmother’s trunk. The secret doorway closes behind them, and they begin their adventure in the Moors.
The Moors are an unforgiving place. The recently dead don’t always stay that way. Vampires and werewolves roam villages at night. Science is a tool to be wielded with none of the inconvenient limits so prevalent in our world. The Moors burst with possibility and dread. Jack and Jill choose their own paths. Each twin grows up in the Moors under the careful watch of her chosen master–Jill’s, a ruthless vampire known only as “the Master,” who has a stranglehold on the village; and Jack’s, a mad scientist named Dr. Bleak, who resurrects the dead and stretches the limits of science with every experiment he performs.
The summary above covers a vast swathe of McGuire’s prequel, but context here is crucial. The Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway have already experienced the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and reading this preamble makes the continuation of their story even more intriguing. Sticks and Bones cuts deep and hits hard. As I learned quickly, McGuire doesn’t pull punches. The Moors are a devastating place, and while Jack and Jill both call it “home,” the world shapes them in remarkable ways. Jack, consumed by science, learns all she can under Dr. Bleak’s stewardship, crafting her logical mind into a sharply honed weapon able to solve problems quickly and creatively. Jill learns obedience and patience, at least at first, and must stay vigilant under the Master’s tutelage. Even as the twins find their place, The Moors carves out their dark sides and forces them to the surface. Just as this new world augments Jack and Jill’s inherent individuality, it siphons out their demons.
So far, Wayward Children is more about the children than the waywardness, and that’s okay. McGuire’s talent for character-driven prose conjures images from words, and the people within these novellas feel fleshed out and believable. That said, for a series with other worlds at its heart, this installment didn’t completely satiate my need for a rich, distinct new world. The Moors serves more as a catalyst for growth than a vibrant setting. I appreciate the approach, and I relish the world-building–I just want more of it.
Like its predecessor, Sticks and Bones breezes by at a lightning-quick pace. McGuire knows how to tell a story in limited space. She cuts the fat and offers a lean, juicy tale. The plot here doesn’t offer much by way of surprise or shock; most of the significant events are mentioned or hinted at in Every Heart. But it’s still worthwhile. Questions of identity, quarrels between right-and-wrong, and unconventional upbringings make Sticks and Bones a melting pot of intrigue. Worth noting as well is McGuire’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and how she writes them: they’re real, they’re people, they love, and they lose. Their orientation doesn’t make them different or “other.” It’s refreshing to read.
The Wayward Children series continues to discuss big questions, explore hard truths, and tell stories worth telling. Pick it up, stack it neatly on top of Every Heart A Doorway, and make space for Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I’ll review next.
Seanan McGuire weaves a poignant tale in Every Heart A Doorway, the first novella in her award-winning Wayward Children series. Through expert world-building and a sharp writing style, Every Heart A Doorway provides a heart-wrenching look at belonging, acceptance, and what it means to be stripped of them.
When protagonist Nancy finds herself ejected from The Land of the Dead back into the “real” world–our world–her parents don’t understand her anymore. After finding a doorway to the Land of the Dead, Nancy spent months learning to be perfectly still, walking the pomegranate orchards under a dark sky, and dancing with the Lord of the Dead. Convinced of her “delusions” after what they believe was a kidnapping, Nancy’s parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There, Nancy discovers that her story, though unique in its details, is more common than she thought. The Home for Wayward Children hosts a few dozen students who found portals to other worlds. Lands of sugar and sweets, worlds where children can run across rainbows, goblin kingdoms, fairy worlds, frolicking skeletons, and many others are counted among the places her peers have visited–and left. Nancy quickly learns that all of Eleanor West’s students wish, on some level, to return “home.” Tragedy strikes as a fellow student is murdered, and Nancy spirals into the darkness of her new world as she and her new cohorts struggle to stay alive while simultaneously trying to solve the murder.
It’s hard to do right by Seanan McGuire’s beautiful plot with only a short paragraph like that. Every Heart a Doorway, clocking in at a brisk 163 pages, packs a dense narrative punch. The effortless homage to classic portal fantasy and the subversion of the tropes it has created reverberate throughout the book’s plot. This is a story about stories, and the layers are stacked with such care that it’s easy to balance them all even as the pages whisk by at breakneck speed. It’s a testament to McGuire’s talent that these precariously perched elements all blend together so well. Her words about magic have a way of becoming magic on the page, and her narratives are joyous to read. Every Heart contains a murder mystery, tales of worlds beyond our own, coming-of-age commentary, hardship, loss, and so much more. McGuire deftly handles her myriad concepts within a small space, and it’s beyond commendable; it’s worth celebrating. The most I can truly say while remaining spoiler-free is that all the interwoven concepts within this single story are worth exploring, and the story is worth reading.
Dissonance prevails in Every Heart a Doorway. Nancy and her classmates have been ejected from worlds where they felt perfectly at home, and their original world doesn’t make sense to them any longer. Nancy’s desire for stillness, honed by her long stay in the Land of the Dead, is in constant competition with our world’s need for incessant motion. The Wayward Children are dissonant with one another, each coming from portal worlds that have different rules and ways of living. The happiness of finding a world you can call home spars with the darkness of being expelled from that home. McGuire’s concepts are at odds with one another on every single page, offering an elegant commentary on what it feels like to be different, to come from a different place, or to be perceived as different despite countless similarities.
That said, Every Heart a Doorway brushes some of its dissonant narrative elements under the rug. These moments are jarring–for example, the students at Eleanor West’s Home remain virtually unfazed by the death of a fellow student after finding the body. Eleanor cancels classes for half a day, and the teachers notice something is off about the students. The police are referred to as “authorities,” but there’s always some sneaky way Eleanor can conveniently avoid their involvement in anything suspicious or outright villainous. For a book whose premier strength is its handling of intriguing concepts, this glancing over is a significant blemish.
Fortunately, Every Heart’s weaknesses end there. The characters shine with a unique type of radiance only one who has walked between worlds can claim. Two adult figures bear signs of deep loss and yearning while they try to imbue their charges with a sense of hope. Nancy’s ragtag group of former world-hoppers comprises a few really compelling characters. Among them is Kade, a gender-fluid expatriate of Fairyland; twin sisters Jacqueline (who prefers “Jack”), a bowtie-wearing scientist, and Jill, a vampire’s ward; and Christopher, a flutist whose instrument can animate skeletons. Like I said above, there’s a lot to explore here, and McGuire delivers with dynamic and sympathetic characters.
Every Heart a Doorway ends with a glimmer of hope and the promise of more beyond Nancy’s story (don’t worry, I’m reviewing the rest of the series, too!). Brimming with personality and breezing by with the help of smart and succinct prose, McGuire’s charming novella is an excellent read.