The Wayward Children Series
by Seanan McGuire
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. Every Heart a Doorway
2. Down Among the Sticks and Bones
3. Beneath the Sugar Sky
I reviewed the first book in this series two years ago before it won Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards. At that time I didn't know there would be sequels, although I should have, since McGuire has multiple other ongoing series, including under her alternate pseudonym Mira Grant. The second title in the sequence is up for a Hugo this year. The third, which I don't have yet, was published earlier this year, and another has been announced for next January. All are novella length. I decided to combine the reviews on one page. I re-read the first before going on to the second, and made some minor edits to my comments about it.
Every Heart a Doorway is a novella published by Tor.com, among the first they released in print form. It's a fantasy, part fairy tale, part gothic horror. The setting is Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, operated by a woman who knows all too well the trauma her young charges have endured. Each of them had encountered a portal to another world, lived in that world on a different time scale, then returned to the 'real' world, usually not of their own volition. Every world is different, unique for each individual, and most feel them to be their true home. We don't actually see any of those worlds in this introductory story, but some are described as being like a Fairyland, which could be either a Nonsense or High Logic world. Others are of Virtue or Wickedness, or some form of Underworld. Some of the children hope for the opportunity to return, a few absolutely don't. For many it was their one and only chance, and that is the source of their trauma. Their parents believe they had been kidnapped, and can't understand their children's inability to fit back into their old life. Eleanor West is older than she appears, is able to come and go to her other world whenever she wants, but feels an obligation to stay and help others like her.
I'm of two opinions on this story. It has some intriguing characters and situations, but being as short as it is, it didn't give enough time to develop the characters sufficiently. It didn't help that the one I liked the most was the first to be eliminated. Several events were predictable, and I did figure out the villain before the reveal, although just barely. I don't think McGuire broke any new ground here—not that she was trying for that—but she did get me thinking about the allegorical nature of the situation. Most portal fantasies have characters that are just curious, or more observant than others, leading them to be the one to discover the portal. Here the children represent those who feel they don't fit into their families, their schools, or society in general. That may be due to just being an introvert who wants to be left alone, or a reader, a writer, or other type of artist who wants to escape to anywhere else than the boring world around them. Maybe they are being persecuted for having an alternate sexual orientation or gender identity. We all want and need a place to belong, a place where we can be ourselves. That aspect alone makes it one I can recommend, especially for younger readers. So, if fantasy is your preferred genre, if any of the above description sounds interesting, get this for yourself or someone you feel might be struggling to fit in. I can't say it will answer any questions for you or them, but perhaps it could help to envision the type of world you'd want to live in, maybe give you ideas on how to create it.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel, exploring the adventures of the twins Jack and Jill (Jacqueline & Jillian) Wolcott, whom we met in the previous story. I had thought their last name was Addams, but I suppose that was just a teasing nickname, since their macabre behavior reminded the other children of The Addams Family. Their parents are the type of people who should not have been allowed to reproduce. They decided to have children for the wrong reasons, primarily as a way to have something in common with their work colleagues, which they felt would increase their prestige. Typically, their father wanted a boy, their mother a girl. They were hardly prepared to be parents in the first place, so twin girls proved to be a dilemma. Their father tried to shape Jillian's life in such a way as to make her a tomboy, active in sports and other physical activities, with short hair and a wardrobe of rugged jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. Jacqueline was her mother's project, groomed to be a perfect little princess, with frilly dresses and long curly hair, and an aversion to physical activity or getting dirty. It was the exact opposite of what the girls would have chosen for themselves, which they eventually realize after they go through their personal portal, discovered in an old steamer trunk left by their grandmother. They are twelve years old when they walk down the steps they find inside the trunk, a long, long descent, until they come to a heavy wooden door with the message "Be Sure" carved into it.
I can't recall how they described their world as to type, but to its inhabitants it is simply The Moors. I guess it's a cross between an Underworld and a Wickedness. The Master who lives in the castle within the walled village is a vampire. Dr. Bleak is similar to Frankenstein. He lives in and conducts his experiments at the Windmill. Other creatures mentioned, although not directly depicted, are werewolves, gargoyles, and the Under Gods of the Seas. The Master had promised Dr. Bleak the next wayward child that came into the Moors, but with the twins he gives the girls three days to decide which of them will go with Bleak, which will stay in the castle with the Master. Jacqueline takes less than a day to decide, she wants to go with Bleak, which suits Jillian, since she had decided to stay with the Master the moment she saw him. Jillian now gets the feminine treatment she never realized she wanted and needed. Luxurious bubble baths, long, flowing, silky and lacey dresses, and she decides to let her hair grow long. Jacqueline discards her dress, now torn, tattered, and dirty, to don sturdy pants, button down shirts, with vest and cravat. She still has an aversion to getting dirty, so always wears gloves as she assists Dr. Bleak with his experiments, or when gathering herbs or minerals for him, or shopping for other supplies. Jillian is being groomed to be the Master's next child bride, but that won't happen until she is eighteen, for until that time it is possible the door back to the other world might present itself again. Jill swears she won't go back no matter what, she wants to stay and become a vampire to rule over the village with her Master. Jack doesn't want to leave either, but for another reason. She has found someone she loves, someone she hopes to have a long and happy life with.
This is the better story of the two, mainly because it concentrates on just two of the wayward children. We get to know them well, in their early childhood, as well as how their lives develop and diverge once they journey to the Moors. They were never similar, never as close as twins are usually depicted, and it would have been the same even if their parents had tried to shape their lives in opposite directions, or allowed them to develop their own personalities without pre-conceptions. It's not that they don't have any affection for each other, but now that they have the opportunity to decide their destiny for themselves, both exhibit selfishness of purpose. I won't detail the events that lead up to their departure from the Moors, but it is exciting, perilous, and traumatic for both sisters, and they leave only because the alternative is likely death, for either or both, possibly the entire village. It is fortunate that Dr. Bleak knew a way to summon their doorway, although he would not have revealed that information if he hadn't felt it was absolutely necessary. The girls are seventeen when they go back through the door, make the long, slow climb up those steps, into and out of the steamer trunk in the attic. It's hard to say which world either or both of the girls truly belong, but I am sure it is not the one their parents wanted for them. The first story was more for a younger audience, those who might be struggling to fit into their environment. This is more of a cautionary tale for parents. If you are a parent, I hope you did not treat your children in any way similar as Chester and Serena Wolcott. If you hope to be a parent in the future, please keep this next paragraph in mind.
"The trouble with denying children the freedom to be themselves—
with forcing them into an idea of what they should be, not allowing
them to choose their own paths—is that all too often, the one drawing
the design knows nothing of the desires of their model. Children are not
formless clay, to be shaped according to the sculptor's whim, nor are they
blank but identical dolls, waiting to be slipped into the mode that suits
them best... Children have preferences. The danger comes when they,
as with any human, are denied those preferences for too long."
Beneath the Sugar Sky begins at Eleanor West's school, then ventures to a couple of the portal worlds when several of the children attempt to right a terrible wrong. I have to be careful not to spoil this adventure, as well as a pivotal event in the first story in case you haven't read that one yet. Cora is a new arrival at the school, an overweight girl returned from her magical space where she was a mermaid. She makes friends with Nadya, whose world was a similar underwater one. Their favorite spot on the school grounds, other than their bathtub, is a small pond. They are there one day when another girl falls out of the sky and lands in the water. Her clothes are colorful, but also appear to be insubstantial, and shortly they melt away and Onishi Rini stands naked and unashamed in the middle of the turtle pond. She demands to see her mother, and declares she and her mother have to return to their world, since the Queen of Cakes has risen to power again.
Rini is from the land of Confection, a world comprised of cakes and cookies, gumdrops and taffy, with seas of strawberry soda. She is something new to this set of stories, a person born in one of the portal worlds. What would happen if she was forced to remain in the 'real' world? I suppose we might never know, since Miss Eleanor agrees to help her, so Cora and Nadya, along with Kade and Christopher, travel through several other portal worlds in order to gather what they need to help Rini in her quest. In one of those worlds they seek out another of their friends, Nancy, who had the good fortune to be able to return to her true world, which is an Underworld, ruled by the Lord and Lady of Death. The Lord also allows Nancy to aid in their quest, and they finally make it to Confection, only to be captured and held prisoner by the Queen of Cakes.
The earlier stories were about the isolation felt by the different children, the persecution, or indifference, or puzzlement on the part of their families. At least at the school they had others around them who had experienced similar events, even if not in the same type of portal world. Eleanor's mission had always been to help them cope with the possibility they may never be able to go back to the worlds where they felt they belonged. Slowly, friendships form between a few of the children, even though it is hard for them to open up, and especially because it is difficult for any of them to truly understand the others' trauma. Thus this story is about learning how to trust, learning how to be an ally to someone else, how to open up and think about others instead of oneself, even when it is hard to understand the other's pains and anxieties. It's a microcosm of many social battles being fought in the real world. Cora has had to suffer through teasing and fat-shaming, Kade is trans, Nadya is disabled, having been born with just one arm. Christopher...well, he's just weird. His world was an Underworld, and he desperately wants to be reunited with his one true love, the Skeleton Girl.
For those who are not into fantasy or science fiction, and don't understand those of us who are, these might seem to be frivilous stories. But as with any fairy tale or fable, there is an unmistakable message. There's a reason they continue to be retold, retooled, slightly altered for different generations, yet still retain their essential points. There will always be a need to reinforce the concepts these stories champion. There will always be evil in the world, so there will always be a need for the good to counter it. Love, trust, loyalty, but most especially understanding and cooperation. With those values we may lose a few battles, might even die, but it is the attempt that is most important.
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