15 February 2019

Review - Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Cover by Sean Rodwell
Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, 3)
Seanan McGuire
Tor, 1 February 2018
HB, e 174pp

Warning: this is the third book in a series and there are some spoilers below for earlier ones.

I bought my copy of this book (another 2018 book I'd left unread too long, and caught up with over Christmas).

I'm loving McGuire's Wayward Children series. To start with the concept is brilliant - Eleanor West runs the Home for Wayward Children, those who've wandered through doorways into other worlds, returned to this one, and don't fit in - but the execution, ah, the execution is sublime. These are real kids, people you will recognise or even people you might have been. Or indeed, be. This series is just so well written, has so much heart and soul and I really, really enjoyed this latest instalment.

Beneath the Sugar Sky opens out the themes of the series somewhat. While the first two books, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told different parts of the same story - that of Jack and Jill, their time on the Moors and their time in the School - in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Rini - daughter of Sumi, who we met in Every Heart - appears from the land of Confection, a place of sugars and baked goods... where everything has now gone wrong. What happened in the earlier book has brought about a catastrophe. The Queen of Cakes is rising again, and Rini's very existence is threatened.

A party of friends sets out to put things right, travelling through various worlds, meeting the Lord and Lady of the Dead and then, inevitably, coming up against the Queen herself.

It's smart, funny, touching and has a pace and tension to it that will keep you turning the pages, as well as smart characters out of their depth - they're in a strange world, not one they would have travelled to. But there is more here and I thought that - after the third book - it might be worth saying something about this series in general.

I understand that one of the hallmarks of science fiction or fantasy is to make metaphors actual. I do find this a hard concept to grasp. I can see for example that "time travel" leaps over our short lives to consider the effect of what we do on the future - or pushes us into the past to consider how similar, and different, we may be to our ancestors. But it's hard to feel this idea other than as a clever talking point, it seems to add little to one's understanding of a book.

In the Wayward Children books, though, McGuire takes this idea and makes it dance and sing. her series has a very clear focus: the kids she conjures up literally don't fit into this (our) world. They want to find a world where they do fit and, if they fall back out of it - those doorways have a pesky habit of reopening just when you don't want them - they need to find their way back in. Eleanor West's Home is a kind of waystation, a safe space where such kids can wait and learn, while they hope to go back.

So we have here, for example, Cora, who's curvy and excellent at swimming and has spent time as a mermaid in a water world. Back home, though, she's taunted for being "fat". Or Kade, whose misfortune is to have been exiled from the world he really wants, where he would be a brave prince - because it identified him, as his parents do, as female. (Not every story has a happy ending).

The Home provides a place to wait, to hope that the door will eventually reopen and - however imperfect this is - the society of others who are in a similar position. It isn't all sweetness and light (witness what happened in the first book) but it is better than a disbelieving and, well, adult world.

The writing therefore speaks to the sense of many young adults that they are misunderstood, out of place, different and it holds out hope of a better future. But there are no promises. This acceptance has to count for a lot, the happy ending may not come (and don't many or even most of us adults go around with similar feelings at least some of the time?) Not every door reopens.

But it goes further than this. By positively identifying with a glorious gamut of diversity (the books acknowledge race, gender, sexuality and many more characteristics - including simply loners and those who identify as weird in various ways) McGuire subtly (well, perhaps not so subtly) renders people visible. In a sense the book is Eleanor West's academy, because that is the place that Christopher, Cora, Sumi, Nancy and all the others have gone because that is where they will accepted and acknowledged..

If that sounds like the worst dream of a certain sort of pallid, angry SFF fan, well, perhaps it is. But I think the reason for that is not because, oh look, here's a SFF book with LGBT people in it, or people of colour, or whatever, and why did she have to do that, and can't we just have a fantastical adventure anymore? No, I think what stands out is that these books don't just have a diverse range of characters, in passing as it were, rather their theme and purpose is that diversity. The whole point of Wayward Children is that with an un-diverse different cast of characters they wouldn't work. The central idea - that we all have, or may have, our own doorway, to a land where we make sense, that we can go there, but we can lose that place - only works on the premise that all those doorways are different. Narnia isn't Never Never Land. Wonderland and Nutwood are different places, even if they have similarities, and the Hundred Acre Wood, to which Christopher Robin escaped, different again.

McGuire's embracing of diversity makes this obvious and - I think - changes that metaphor of falling down the rabbit hole or stepping through a wardrobe forever, making clear that such fantasies, such quests, are about the child stepping into the pond, through the mirror, or into the crack in the tree rather than the ostensible business of the quest or adventure then that takes place. What need is inside someone that they travel to such places so that it can be recognised and met?

So - rather that a nod to diversity through including these characters, McGuire  has full-bloodedly turned it into the subject, the bedrock and the central metaphor of her book (of this series). It's an exemplary use of that 'make the metaphor concrete' idea, in the very best, most mainstream SFF tradition - but it turns this idea on something that, let's admit it, still gets a minuscule share of the action (or perhaps of the attention).

Oh, and in case I wasn't clear above, Beneath the Sugar Sky (as well as Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones) are rattling good stories. I don't think McGuire could produce a dud if she tried.

On, now, to Book 4, In an Absent Dream, which isn't out yet as a physical book (1 February if you're waiting!) but is available on Audible now...

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