In the 2020 portal fantasy Over the Woodward Wall, by A. Deborah Baker (a pseudonym for the prolific Seanan McGuire), two children, Avery and Zib, climbed a granite wall that had inexplicably appeared in the road and were transported to a magical world, the Up-and-Under. It’s much like the land of Oz but with far sharper teeth, and Avery and Zib are anxious to find their way home to our world. They are told to follow the improbable road to the Impossible City, and there ask the Queen of Wands for help getting home.
Following the improbable road is easier said than done, with mudslides, dangerous rulers, and misunderstandings and hurt feelings hindering their path. Worse yet, the Queen of Wands has disappeared, upsetting the balance of power and endangering the entire Up-and-Under. But along with the dangers there are new friends, like the brave Crow Girl and Niamh, a drowned girl from a city beneath the sea ice, not to mention Avery and Zib’s growing friendship for each other.
As Along the Saltwise Sea (2021) begins (after a long introductory chapter that recaps the first book), Avery, Zib, the Crow Girl and Niamh, bedraggled and footsore from walking the improbable road for so long, drink from a well of water and then, for no particularly good reason, tumble down to the bottom of the well. Some helpful kelp (at least Niamh calls it helpful; the children aren’t so sure) pulls them underwater and eventually to a cave that leads — after another too-long walk — to a beach and an empty cottage. It would certainly be too much to expect the exhausted children to pass up the chance to sleep in a clean, comfortable bed.
When a ship appears the next morning, captained by the owner of the cottage, our uninvited guests find they have a debt to pay off to the pirate queen, Captain ‘Alas. As members of her crew on the ship Windchaser for the next week, they sail off toward more adventures and, hopefully, toward their goal of finding their way home. But there are storms and dangers at sea, and on the ship there’s a narrow staircase that appears and disappears, and a tattered, underfed woman locked behind a door at the top of the stairs, who nobody on the ship wants to talk about.
Along the Saltwise Sea is the second book in THE UP-AND-UNDER series and, like many second books in a series, suffers from Middle Book Syndrome. The ongoing story of Zib and Avery’s journey is pleasant and occasionally even exciting, and sailing on the Saltwise Sea in a pirate ship makes for a nice change of pace from walking the improbable road. But in the end, little forward plot movement actually happens in this book.
If you enjoyed Over the Woodward Wall and are agreeable to more magical adventures that don’t as yet have an ending in sight, you’ll like Along the Saltwise Sea too. The wise, perceptive narrator is still narrating insightfully — I do very much enjoy the nuggets of truth that are strewn along the path. And the characters are appealing even when (and perhaps even especially when) they’re afraid and lash out at each other. Avery and Zib are on a long quest here, both physically and in their personal growth, and for now the reader needs to just relax and enjoy the journey.
I read Along the Saltwise Sea once, put it down for a week or so, came back and re-read it, and found that I enjoyed it more the second time around. I had more patience for the slower pace, the ways in which Avery and Zib are still becoming accustomed to each other’s quirks and foibles, and the sometimes-random events that push the plot in one direction or another. I also kept reminding myself that these are, ostensibly, children’s books being written by an alchemist who may or may not actually be writing guidebooks for her apprentices, and that this volume may end up tying in quite tightly to Seasonal Fears, the upcoming second book in McGuire’s MIDDLEGAME series, since Over the Woodward Wall dovetails with Middlegame so neatly, and I don’t yet know the full scope of the story McGuire is telling. In other words, I think I have the ciphertext, but I don’t yet know how to decrypt the plaintext.
It was tremendous fun to spend more time with Zib, Avery, Niamh, and the Crow Girl; McGuire-as-Baker has a good handle on their individual voices, what drives each of them, and how they each approach obstacles. (Avery: thoughtfully, Zib: forcefully, the Crow Girl: flight, Niamh: also thoughtfully, but with slightly more maturity, being the oldest of the troupe.) It was so much fun, in fact, that when their truly delightful voyage aboard the Windchaser comes to its end, the transition is quite abrupt and jarring, and more than a little frustrating. The languid way in which this installment of the series unfolds led me to believe that there was simply more story to be told, and Tadiana’s absolutely right — overall, it smacks of Middle Book Syndrome. That said, I think the intended audience will enjoy these books, will learn a thing or two from various reminders that proper name-pronounciation is basic courtesy and that honesty is a cornerstone to any genuine friendship, and will look forward to further adventures along the improbable road.