Why You Need to Read: “In An Absent Dream”

Wayward Children, #4: In An Absent Dream

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            This, then, was Katherine Victoria Lundy: pretty and patient and practical. Not lonely, because she had never really considered any way of being other than alone. Not gregarious, nor sullen, but somewhere in the middle, happy to speak when spoken to, happy also to carry on in silence, keeping her thoughts tucked quietly away. She was ordinary. She was remarkable, (1: A Very Ordinary Garden). 

            We’ve all asked the question: ‘How did ‘x’ come to be in existence?’ In our world, we have history lessons and oral tradition to teach us about historic moments and events, and changes in technology. In other worlds—in works of fiction—the audience receives the history as the narration continues explaining the scenario, the characters’ backstories, and—in the case of speculative fiction—how the world came to be. Throughout the Wayward Children series, readers have learned about the various worlds the travelers visited, and how Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a haven for these travelers. It makes you wonder how those who returned to our world readjusted in society before these schools existed. In An Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series, provides one infamous case.

            The protagonist in this story is Lundy, whom we met in Every Heart A Doorway. Everyone already knows how her life ends, but we’re given a look into her life—both with her family and in the Goblin Market. Katherine Victoria Lundy is the middle child in her family’s household. She is 6-years-old at the beginning of the story. She has an older brother, Daniel, who is 6 years her senior; and, her mother is pregnant with her 3rd child, which will be Lundy’s younger sister, Diana. However, Lundy isn’t Lundy yet, she is Katherine; it’s her birthday, and none of Katherine’s classmates are celebrating with her. The reason for this is because Katherine’s father is the principal at the school, which goes unnoticed by both parents. For another 2 years, Katherine is a model student, which isolates her even more. One day, 8-year-old Katherine is walking home from school when she finds a Door with the words: BE SURE. Well, Katherine is sure and she enters the world of the Goblin Market. There, Katherine meets “the Archivist,” who explains the rules and the ways of the Goblin Market; and, “Moon,” a girl around Katherine’s age who is a resident at the Goblin Market, who has trouble following the rules. The first thing Katherine learns there is NOT to use her actual name, but either an attribute or a family name. Thus, Katherine chooses to go by her last name, Lundy; and, Lundy is told she is not the 1st visitor to go by that name. Throughout her “trips” to the Goblin Market, Lundy grows into the person she was denied to be in her world (the story starts in 1962). Meanwhile, Lundy’s family cannot understand why she would choose to be anywhere else but with them, especially Lundy’s father. So, what does Lundy’s family do to her? They find ways to keep her from leaving them, even succumbing to enact guilt. This move begins a rift in Lundy as she tries to figure out a way to find “fair value” before the curfew.   

            The plot is a look back into Lundy’s early life—who can be viewed as a “tragic” character—and her childhood and her time in the Goblin Market. This is an intriguing view into how a child survives in “another world” with minimal adult guidance, which could be one of the actual dilemmas Lundy had to deal with as well, while remaining divided on which Home was her real one. The sad thing is Lundy was thriving in the Goblin Market for reasons her family was too blind to notice. There are 2 subplots and they are essential to the plot (and, the entire series). The first subplot regards the concept and the importance of the rules in each world. Throughout the series, readers learn which students haven’t returned Home due to the rules they broke, but there wasn’t too much context in their stories—except for Kade. Lundy is the first character who has to admit her choices to break the rules led to her permanent punishment (unlike Jill). The second subplot presents how and why schools like Eleanor West’s—remember, there are several others throughout our world—became the much-needed havens and fellowships travelers, especially children, never knew they needed. Lundy knew of 2 other travelers: Moon, who was already a permanent citizen of the Goblin Market; and, Franklin Lundy, Lundy’s father, who does everything in his power to stop his daughter from returning to the Goblin Market. Neither friend nor parent can give the guidance Lundy needs so badly. It makes you wonder what could have been if a school existed during Lundy’s childhood. It is obvious both subplots are necessary for the plot to develop throughout the story.

            The narrative in this story is told from Lundy’s point-of-view, but in 3rd person omniscient. This is because there are moments when the P.O.V. shifts away from Lundy—usually to her father—in order to fill in the smaller details of the story. The sequence is broken down into the events leading up to Lundy’s “trips” to the Goblin Market, particularly her first 3 visits. Each visit leads Lundy to staying at the Goblin Market for longer periods of time. However, it is the visits before the curfew, which receives the most attention. Lundy’s “trips” become more frequent, but for shorter visits, almost like they match Lundy’s hesitation instead of her heart. The narrative is a look back at the past, so it is NOT a flashback. This means most of the narration is told from Lundy’s stream-of-consciousness. And, because the narration leads to the end readers know is coming, Lundy is a reliable narrator.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in In An Absent Dream is an intriguing one. The concept of the Goblin Market comes from the narrative poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti. The poem is about 2 sisters who meet goblins by the river encouraging all to “Come buy, come buy.” The synopsis of the poem is: one sister eats the fruit, while the other one does not. As time passes, the sister who ate the fruit begins to age unnaturally. This causes the other sister to go and buy some of the fruit to save her. The sister resists the temptation to eat the fruit, which saves her sister’s life. It is obvious the author took this children’s poem and retold it with the same dilemmas and the same morals. Seanan McGuire’s retelling of Goblin Market is easier to comprehend, but is just as much of a cautionary tale as the original poem. The mood in this story is the discord one’s desires can lead to within the individual, which is brought on by those closest to them. Once again, the illustrations done by Rovina Cai bring out the beauty in a world very few people know exist. 

            The appeal for In An Absent Dream have been positive. Not only was it nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2020, but also it is one of the highest rated books in the Wayward Children series by readers on Goodreads and on other social media and (book) retail websites. This novella is an excellent addition to both the book series and the fantasy canon. I should mention that anyone who did enjoy this book because of the world of the Goblin Market should read both Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti and The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner. The latter is a historical fantasy novel with allusions to Goblin Market. After reading those, fans can move on to the next book in the series, Come Tumbling Down

            In An Absent Dream is a story so beautiful and tragic readers will be torn between wanting it to be real and wanting it to be a dream. This is my favorite book in the series next to Every Heart A Doorway. There are several reasons for this: the believable characters, the beauty of the Goblin Market, the split between family and where you belong, and the heart-wrenching end everyone knows is coming but doesn’t want it to happen. Not to mention, the reason and the importance of schools like Eleanor West’s for travelers in similar scenarios. Now, readers have a complete understanding of what these children really need: the desire to choose without any guilt. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

Wayward Children, #3: Beneath the Sugar Sky

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 9, 2018

Genre: Fantasy

            The Queen of Cakes would never have been defeated: Sumi had died before she could return to Confection and overthrow the government. Rini wasn’t just saving herself. She was saving a world, setting right what was on the verge of going wrong, (5: Places of the Living, Places of the Dead).

***NOTE: This review contains some spoilers from Every Heart A Doorway. That book should 

be read BEFORE reading this one. 

            Quests; adventures; journeys. Everyone is familiar with the numerous stories about “ordinary” people who leave home to go on a “hero’s quest” usually “to save the world.” Other journeys include a fellowship attempting to do the impossible, and most of them take place in different worlds. Stories about Narnia, Oz, Middle-earth and the gods involve quests. In fact, several video games such as Final Fantasy are about a group of individuals on an adventure to accomplish a goal. Seanan McGuire has her readers return to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children before they go on a quest, which is against the rules. Beneath the Sugar Sky, the 3rd book in the Wayward Children series, takes place after some time has passed after the events in Every Heart A Doorway

            Readers are reunited with the students from Eleanor West’s school: Kade, who is training to be the school’s next headmaster; Christopher, who is waiting for the Day of the Dead so his Door will appear, if it does; Cora, the school’s newest student, who was a mermaid; and, Nadya, one of the school’s longest residents, who talks to turtles. It is an ordinary day at school, until a girl wearing a cotton candy dress falls from the sky and into the turtle pond. The girl identifies herself as Onishi Rini, the daughter of Onishi Sumi, one of the students at the school. Rini claims she is from the future and she is searching for her mother—who disappeared from their home in Confection. There is one problem, Sumi is dead, which means she can’t have a daughter in the future, at least in our Logical world. However, Confection is NOT a Logical world, so there should be a loophole, right? Eleanor allows some of her students to go on a quest—which, is against the rules—”to put Sumi back together.” Kade, Christopher, Cora and Nadya travel with Rini on her quest bringing their knowledge and their skills as they attempt to do the impossible. Readers learn more about these characters, the worlds they call Home, and the worlds they travel to. Who else will they meet along the way?

            The plot in this story is straightforward. A few schoolmates are going to resurrect the dead friend with her future daughter leading the way. All they have to do is travel to the worlds where pieces of Sumi can be found so they can put her back together. Not too difficult right? Not to mention, with Sumi dead, Confection remains under control of a despot, who will do everything in her power to stop her nemesis from coming back to life. There is one subplot and it goes back to one of the plots from Every Heart A Doorway, which is the construction of the Great Compass. Kade, Christopher, Cora, Nadya and Rini all traveled to different worlds; and, those worlds are connected to each other somehow. As the students continue on their quest, they note which worlds are connected to each other, which serve as clues for the students who are trying to return Home. It seems like the Great Compass is forming into a larger map where one world has pathways to several other worlds. Someone just has to figure out a way to map them all out. The subplot develops alongside the plot as the characters note which Doors take them to which worlds. 

            The narrative follows the points-of-view of all of the travelers, but the focus is on Cora because she is the newest student. This means that the P.O.V. is 3rd person omniscient and the sequence is in the present as readers follow the events in “real time.” In addition, following the streams-of-consciousness of the characters make them reliable narrators that makes it easy to follow the story.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in this story reminds readers of the adventure stories they’ve read (and, probably continue to read). Throw in elements of hero’s quest stories from myths and legends and some Japanese pop culture and you have a story everyone can enjoy. Allusions to Orpheus, the Underworld, JRPGsSailor Moon and Back to the Future can be found throughout the story and are recognized by readers who are familiar with them. Additionally, the allusions to magic objects and other tropes from folklore could be viewed as foreshadowing for future books in the series and as evidence that magic exists in our world. The mood in this story is adventure. The students go on a quest to save their friend and her future and her Home. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know it will be more fun than they’ve had in a long time. The tone in this story is fellowship. The students wouldn’t embark or assist in this quest if it wasn’t for the loyalty—both strong and fragile—they have for each other. They are not sure whether or not they will succeed in their quest, but they are willing to risk it all because of the friendship they share. There are illustrations in this book done by Rovina Cai. While they are few, they capture the essential parts of this quest, and the illustrations are beautiful.

            The appeal for Beneath the Sugar Sky have been positive. And yes, this novella was nominated for some of the literary awards its predecessors have won. However, fans of the series agree this book is a creative continuation about the lives of the students at the school. Readers learn through the characters that magic is brought over to Earth from other worlds, and the magic and the worlds are connected. This book is a portal-quest fantasy and it belongs in the fantasy canon alongside the other books in the series. This book can be read by fans of both Philip Pullman and Joseph Campbell. And, due to its connection to the first 2 books in Wayward Children, readers can and should reread all of the books in the series so they know how each book is related to each other. After reading all 3 books, they will be ready to read the next book in the series, In An Absent Dream

            Beneath the Sugar Sky is a sweet addition to the Wayward Children series. This book gives readers a quest with some of their favorite characters—both old and new—where they learn about them and some of the many worlds as they journey to save their friend. The author combines story elements from the past and the present in order to present this narrative to her fans. In all, this novella is a must read for fans of fantasy stories and of fantasy scholarship. 

My Rating: MUST READ NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!