If you’re looking for a grittier, dream-edging-on-nightmare version of a world created by C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling, author Seanan McGuire has you covered. McGuire explores worlds that are simultaneously fascinating and frightening in her award-winning Wayward Children novella series. It’s a dark-fantasy version of a conceit you might have heard of before: kids discover new worlds behind mysterious doors, then return to the “real world” only to search for the doorway back to their new, preferred homes.
The fourth installment in the series, In an Absent Dream, follows Lundy, a character introduced in the first book Every Heart A Doorway. And in this new installment, Lundy ventures into the Goblin Market, a world inspired by the narrative poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti.
A world of “fair value”
The story begins when Lundy was once Katherine Lundy, an ordinary yet remarkable young girl with a love for books. One day, a strange tree blocks her usual walking path home from school, and inside it is a door with the message “Be Sure” carved into its wood. Lundy opens it and enters the Goblin Market, an alternative universe where “fair value” rules. She quickly learns her way around the Market thanks to her new friend and Market-dweller Moon and the Market’s debt handler, a woman named the Archivist.
Unlike the worlds explored in previous Wayward Children novellas, the Goblin Market has a quiet kind of sinister air. Whereas the threats of violence and manipulation were overt in the Moors of Down Among the Sticks and Bones (book two), the Goblin Market controls its citizens through the rules of fair value, or the equitable exchange of goods and services between parties. Let’s say there are consequences to racking up debt when fair value isn’t achieved.
Moon and the Archivist teach Lundy how to survive, and thrive, in the Goblin Market, so much so that Lundy wants nothing more than to stay in this new world forever. But the Goblin Market doesn’t keep children during their first visit, so Lundy is forced back into the real world more quickly than she had hoped. She returns to the Goblin Market a handful of times after that, coming and going between it and the real world as experiences the trials and tribulations of a young girl coming of age.
This world-traveling introduces a new dynamic into the series. In the three previous novellas, children who find new homes beyond strange doors either stay in their new homes forever, or wind up back in the real world by choice or by force. Those who are forced back end up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they can live among other kids searching for ways back to their worlds, or ways to accept their real-world fate. In an Absent Dream shows how Lundy is affected by literally being in limbo between two worlds, both of which contain things she loves and hates.
In an Absent Dream combines a high-stakes plot, vivid world-building, and gentle character development best out of all of the Wayward Children novellas.
While McGuire introduces plenty of external conflict in this installment, the most compelling is Lundy’s internal struggle. Should she return to the Goblin Market forever, pledging an unbreakable oath to the world when she turns 18 years old? Or should she stay in the real world, where her younger sister Diana yearns for the sibling bond she feels she missed out on after Lundy disappeared the first time?
Without getting deep into spoilers, many experiences influence Lundy’s final decision. The Market’s fair value system proves to be more complicated than she first thought, as a very peculiar, entrancing, and frightening fate awaits those who amass too much debt. Much of her time spent in the Goblin Market revolves around settling debts, both her own and those of others. McGuire expertly uses the rules of the Goblin Market to explore relationship dynamics, showing how the circumstances of the world in which you live may have more of an effect on your relationships than you think.
In an Absent Dream combines a high-stakes plot, vivid world-building, and gentle character development best out of all of the Wayward Children novellas. While the previous three novellas are strong (McGuire does so much in few very pages, as all of the novellas are around 200 pages), the balance between those three points isn’t as well-executed as it is in this fourth installment.
Thanks to their brevity and individualistic nature, the Wayward Children stories don’t need to be read in order (although, some general rules about worlds and doorways will make more sense if you do). In every novella, readers re-experience the wonders, uncertainties, and anxieties of childhood as these characters journey through new worlds with fresh, hungry eyes. And no matter which world they end up in, they face universal challenges that we all face at one point or another in our lives—even if most of us do so without dominating vampires, doctors with powers over the dead, and landscapes made of cake and sugar shards.
In an Absent Dream is published by Tor/Forge and will be available January 8, 2019.
Listing image by Tor Publishing