Alchemical Journeys, #2: Seasonal Fears
By: Seanan McGuire
Published: May 3, 2022
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror/Metaphysical/Standalone Sequel
You’re lucky, you know. Not all the Summers start out this close to their Winter. Not all of them even get along. The last Summer “hated” his Winter. I wasn’t around when they were crowned, but everyone says they hated each other from the start, and the longer things went on, the worst they got. You’re not going to be like that, I can already tell. You’re going to be a proper sitting court, and you’re going to do your jobs, (Where the Sidewalk Begins).
What happens when one of your favorite authors announces she wrote a standalone sequel to one of your favorite books? And, what happens when you’re sent an ARC of the book? Simple, you rearrange your TBR pile and your reading schedule (with practical time intervals) to get a head start with reading it! Of course, with the excitement comes the curiosity. Middlegame was a standalone novel, originally; and now, Seasonal Fears is the first of 3 standalone sequels (or, companion works?) which expands the hidden world of mad scientists and magic users. The first novel introduced us to fraternal twins who have powerful affinities for numbers and languages. In this novel, the seasons—particularly Summer and Winter—are explored in this narrative.
There are 2 protagonists in this novel. First, is Harald—a.k.a. “Harry”—March. He is from a wealthy family, is a quarterback on the high school football team, and has a girlfriend who he loves more than anything else. However, everyone—including Harry’s parents—consider Harry’s relationship with his girlfriend to be “tragic” because she is sick and dying. Melanie Cosgrove—the second protagonist—is both lucky and unlucky. Melanie has been “dating” Harry March since elementary school, and he’s been devoted to her needs from then to now as high schoolers. On the day Melanie was born, both her mother and her twin sister died due to “complications” of the birth; those same complications caused the heart condition Melanie’s lived with her entire life. Hospital visits and surgeries are as constant to Melanie’s life as is her love for Harry. Harry has been there for Melanie since Kindergarten and has continued supporting her throughout everything. Even with everyone telling Harry to leave Melanie—something even Melanie has said to Harry herself—she is more than grateful for his love and his support. Harry and Melanie attend their high school as Juniors and as High School Sweethearts who are looking forward to attending their school’s Winter Formal together. However, something strange happens during the football game before the dance. As both Harry and Melanie participate in the game—as football player and as cheerleader, respectively—Melanie’s heart stops and she dies on the field. What makes this moment so unusual is NOT that Melanie has died (everyone was expecting that), but that Harry collapses at the same time. After the hullabaloo dies down, Harry and Melanie are on their way to the dance when a girl named Jack appears in Harry’s car and she tells them they can neither go to the school nor their homes. This is because both Harry and Melanie have become contenders for the crowns of Summer and Winter, respectively. In fact, the 2 of them collapsing at the same time means that it is time for a (new) coronation for the next rulers. As bizarre as it sounds, Melanie never gets cold and Harry does not feel the heat; but, that doesn’t mean they’re potential embodiments of the seasons, right? Regardless, when Jack tells them failure to obtain the crowns means death, Harry and Melanie go on an unplanned road trip across the United States to win the crowns not only to stay alive, but also to stay together. As cliché as it sounds, Harry and Melanie participate in this “competition” so that they can stay together (for a longer time).
There are two plots in this story. The first plot follows Harry and Melanie’s strange road trip to become the next rulers of the Seasons. Their guide—or, at least, Melanie’s—Jack, travels with them while explaining everything she’s been taught about her role, and Melanie’s, and about what to expect during this “competition.” Harry and Melanie are at an advantage because they are a couple and that gives them a lead against the other candidates. Unfortunately, this is also a disadvantage because as they progress closer to the crowns, other contenders “locate” them and “challenge” them in a fight to the death (no joke), so they have a better chance to win the crowns and/or usurp Harry or Melanie for themselves. The crowns are within a labyrinth whose location is a mystery until a new coronation is needed. Then, the contenders must locate and arrive at the labyrinth by the time the gates open, or they will die. The second plot delves into the world and the responsibilities of the individuals who are Ascendants and Incarnates of the Seasons. The rules are essential for winning and for maintaining the crowns. It’s been almost 300 years since North America last held a coronation. This means a lot of the knowledge and the rituals got lost overtime because there was no reason to refer to them. The selfishness and the cowardice of the previous rulers (mainly the Winter King) has placed this coronation in jeopardy because no one alive now was present for the last one. There are 2 subplots within this story which are necessary for the plots. The first subplot focuses on the Alchemical Congress (what’s left of it). It turns out the Alchemical Congress—and, not just the North American location—has been “interfering” with the Seasons. Not only was the previous Winter King of North America in some sort of alliance with the Alchemical Congress, but also one of the contenders is one of their “cuckoos.” It turns out the Alchemical Congress has had a huge role in how this particular coronation should pan out. In fact, Dr. Asphodel Baker wrote The Up-and-Under as an alchemy handbook in the disguise of a children’s book. Once again, the theories surrounding the Doctrine of Ethos have managed to corrupt another natural concept. This time, it’s the Seasons Incarnate they want to control; except both of those “vessels” are loose, and they are apart from each other. The second subplot reintroduces the audience to a few characters from Middlegame. It is not a spoiler that these characters make an appearance in this story (the author said so herself). However, without going into too many spoilers, these characters are not mentioned for the sake of a cameo. These characters assist Harry, Melanie, and Jack with their journey, and provide some of the lost and the unknown knowledge about the Seasons Incarnate, the labyrinth, and the coronation. Believe it or not, all of the plots and the subplots are its own alchemical formula with a straightforward story.
Once again, the narrative is told from the points-of-view of the protagonists, the main characters and the other characters in 3rd person omniscient. This P.O.V. style allows the audience to know about all of the ongoings related to this narrative, as well as any flashbacks and moments of streams-of-consciousness from all of the characters. The audience is able to grasp the motivations of each of the characters, too, which makes all of them reliable narrators. The only difference is the sequence of the narrative is in real-time and in the present. All of this presents a more straightforward narration that matches the faster pace in this novel over its predecessor.
The style Seanan McGuire uses is a build-up towards the alchemical organization she continues to create in this universe. In Middlegame, the word choice used were math, language, and creepy science experiments. In Seasonal Fears, more emphasis is placed on the seasons, the Seasonal Monarchs across all 7 continents, and the behavior of teenagers. In addition to learning more about the domination of the Alchemical Congress, there is mention of how both alchemy and magic are real and the way individuals—including those who are not members of the Alchemical Congress—use them for their own gain. The author explains more about the Doctrine of Ethos and hints at more of its “components,” and the alchemists who study them. As of this book, there are 3 “pairs” mentioned, but there are so many more “elements” of the Doctrine of Ethos, how many more cuckoos were “created” in order to attempt to obtain each one? Not to mention, similar to how Over the Woodward Wall was quoted throughout Middlegame, Along the Saltwise Sea is quoted throughout this book. While you don’t have to read the books from The Up-and-Under series, it will make the allusions easier to understand as you read Alchemical Journeys. The mood in this novel is competition. This narrative is a race to determine who will be the next rulers of Summer and Winter, and a race to see who will make up the pairing. It’s not necessary for both Harry and Melanie to win although they want to win together. The tone in this novel is desire. This story is not only about who will become the next Seasonal Monarchs, but also about what each participant—both the Seasons Incarnates and the Seasons Ascendants—get out of this “race for the crowns.” And, similar to actual desires, some are more sinister than sweet.
The appeal for Seasonal Fears have been positive. Yes, the ratings and the readership is slightly lower than they are compared to Middlegame; but, I believe this is because not everyone who is interested in this book has read it yet, and other interested readers do not know what to expect from this book. And yes, 3 years between book releases may have something to do with it, too. This novel is a standalone within a series; and, the easiest way I can describe this book—and, I apologize if I’m way off—is Seasonal Fears is equivalent to The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons with the pacing of American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This story might appear to be peculiar when compared to the rest of the series, but it’s still part of a series and it should be treated as such. As different as Seasonal Fears is from some of Seanan McGuire’s other books, it should be mentioned that this book is more metaphysical than her fantasy (and her horror) stories, but it is part of a series, and the book does fit into the speculative fiction canon. I don’t want to jump to any conclusion, but I believe when the rest of the books in this series—there are supposed to be 2 more books both in Alchemical Journeys and in The Up-and-Under—are released more of the overall story (and the timeline) will make sense to the audience.
Seasonal Fears is an entertaining and a brilliant standalone sequel, which you won’t know you needed to read until you’ve read the story. Believe it or not, more is at stake in this book and that’s due to the faster pace within the narrative. These characters are more relatable than the ones in the previous book, but the world-building is just as impressive, which is what I expect from this author. Seanan McGuire continues to impress her readers with her unlimited stories. Until I can read the next book in this series, I’ll be brainstorming which “cuckoos” we’ll get to read about in the next book.
My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).