Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Microreview [book]: Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire

A feeling of homecoming with great adventure

Seanan McGuire's Hugo Award winning novella Every Heart a Doorway (my review) introduced readers to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, something of a boarding school / halfway house for children who have gone through portals and adventured beyond wardrobes and down rabbit holes. Back home these children never quite fit in, never found a place they felt they belonged. Through the doorways, they mattered. In these other worlds, they belonged.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third Wayward Children novella from Seanan McGuire, and it brings back much of the feeling of Every Heart a Doorway after stepping deep into the origin story of Jack and Jill in Down Among the Sticks and Bones (my review). There is more of the sense of nostalgia from the first book, but also a much greater sense of adventure.

I should also note that I read almost the entire book with my newborn daughter Cora resting on my shoulder, so there was an added layer of poignancy reading a story with a protagonist also named Cora. A protagonist, I might add, who never belonged and never fit in - which is how she found her way to Eleanor West's after returning to the "real" world. My heart ached for her and for my own daughter, barely two weeks old when I read Beneath the Sugar Sky.

Seanan McGuire spends more time at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Girls, so Beneath the Sugar Sky feels more like a homecoming. This leads, of course to the comfortable ache of so many of these children finding a world of their own where they could truly belong.
She sometimes thought that might be the one piece of true magic this world possessed: so many children had found their way home while in her care, and yet not a single parent had accused her of wrongdoing, or attempted to launch and investigation into the disappearance of their beloved offspring
One of the things I most appreciate about the Wayward Children novellas is how McGuire demonstrates the need for and the power of acceptance for children who may be different and feel like they don't fit in. Cora is an overweight child and before she found her doorway and before she arrived at Eleanor West's, she was judged exactly the way one might expect she would be. But her reality is that she's an athlete. She's an expert swimmer and she can run fast and far.  When she went through her doorway, she was a mermaid and a hero. 
Suddenly she'd been a hero, brave and bright and beloved. 
But even when Cora returned to Eleanor West's, the other children are not mean in the same way they might be in a regular school. "It was like they had all learned to be a little kinder, or at least a little more careful about what they based their judgments on", McGuire writes, which is important to see. It's not that everyone likes each other or non judgmental, but it's more that those judgments may be based more on who a person is than what the person looks like.

But this is also an adventure story, not simply a lesson in morality (though, as lessons go, it's a really good one). Cora and some of the other children go on an adventure that hops between worlds. Time is spent in the Underworld and we get to visit with Nancy again and see just how blissfully happy she is having found her doorway again. That ending of Every Heart a Doorway is fully paid off here.

Most of the time, though, is spent in a sugary sweet world of logical nonsense. The entire world is a confection, layered and layered by pastry. There is a sea of strawberry rhubarb soda, of which Cora astutely points out that they would all "get horrible urinary tract infections" after swimming in it, which is a nice touch for how this might be a Nonsense world - but there's real thought behind it.
"She needs to stop being dead and come home and have sex until I exist again!"
The story of Beneath the Sugar Sky is a quest to bring back to life one of the children murdered in Every Heart a Doorway because her daughter would really like to be born and exist. It's sort of complicated and laced with Nonsense, but somehow Rini was able to travel to Eleanor West's after her mother was murdered there, which occurred before Rini was born. I know, it doesn't make all that much sense to me either (or to any of the characters in Beneath the Sugar Sky for that matter), but it works well enough because Rini and her mother were from the Nonsense world of Confection and the rules are different there. Remember the strawberry rhubard soda sea.
"Why do people always say that?" muttered Cora, trailing along at the rear of the group. "There's always more than one way to find something out. People only say there's only one way when they want an excuse to do something incredibly stupid without getting called on it
Beneath the Sugar Sky is filled with wit and biting commentary on how children are perceived and all too often squeezed into boxes they don't belong in order to fit the ideas and dreams of their parents and other adults, and how pervasive that can be. It's also a delightful adventure story filled with charm and wonder and it's a book I did not quite want to end because I wasn't ready to say goodbye.
There is kindness in the world, if we know how to look for it. If we never start denying it the door.
That's a good place to leave it, I think.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 because McGuire digs a bit deeper into the nature of these worlds, how they interact, and in some cases - how they might have been formed. It's more than just knowing there are plenty of weird worlds out that there that fit the needs of various children. They may be equally as real as Earth and that Earth has its own rules on the chart

Penalties: No.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10,  "very high quality/standout in its category". See more about our scoring system here.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.