In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
I didn’t have a great experience with the first WAYWARD CHILDREN book I read by Seanan McGuire — Every Heart a Doorway — which put me off the next few books in the series. But I decided to give the well-reviewed series another shot with In an Absent Dream (2019), and I’m glad I did as it certainly struck a far more responsive chord and has encouraged me to take a look at the others I’ve missed.
The series posits a series of other worlds and presents us children who have made their way to one or more worlds (and sometimes back) via various types of portals. This most recent title focuses on Katherine Victoria Lundy, a girl whose “remarkability took the form of a quiet self-assuredness, a conviction that as long as she followed the rules, she could find her way through any maze, pass cleanly through any storm.”
When at a young age “Lundy” (as she’ll later call herself) finds herself isolated from her peers thanks to her father’s position as principal of her school, she makes the first of what will be many important choices (a key theme of this novella) in her life: “She can cry for the friends she doesn’t have … or she can let them go. She can be the kind of girl who doesn’t need anyone else to keep her happy.” Not much later, she’s faced with another choice when a magical door appears that leads her to the Goblin Market, a world where “Fair Value” reigns supreme. Whenever one is involved in any sort of transaction, whether that be economic (labor, retail) or personal, one must give fair value or suffer the penalties of debt (which are wonderfully fantastical, but I won’t spoil here). Lundy travels back and forth several times over years (despite the inconvenience of time moving differently in the two worlds), making two good friends: Moon, another young girl who found herself magically transported to the Market; and the Archivist, a kindly older woman who acts as a mentor. But eventually the rules of the Market mean yet another choice: at eighteen she must either choose to remain forever in the Market or never return.
Stylistically, In an Absent Dream has a lovely lyrical and elegiac bent to it, a poetically sorrowful shroud of inevitability that hangs over the plot throughout. On a sentence level, there’s some great writing here, and McGuire, as well, perfectly captures that classic children’s fantasy narrative voice, a warmly inviting direct address that refuses to condescend, a tricky voice that many aim at and miss. Here is Lundy’s first meeting with a portal (inside an odd tree):
Had the tree responded with words, we would be finished now, and all the things which are set to follow would never have come to pass. Perhaps that would, in a way, have been the kinder outcome.
Not the first or last time that the narrator warns the reader that things will not end well in this story.
Thematically, the back-and-forth travels and her eventually agonizing choice when the “Curfew” (the decision at 18) arrives make for a wonderful apt metaphor of the betwixt and between nature of adolescence, when one is caught between childhood and young adulthood and yearns for aspects of both. Where, then, is the math formula to determine “Fair Value” between two possible lives? Especially when that math is complicated further by how that choice is at least as much about obligation/responsibility as pleasure or desire. Or by how society’s sexism drives choices/actions, as when Lundy thinks of how the Market offered her a world opposed to one “that told her, day after day after grinding, demoralizing day, that adventures were only for boys; that girls had better things to worry about, like making sure those same boys had a safe harbor to come home to.”
McGuire keeps the focus on choice, on the intimacy of relationships both in terms of friends and family, by making the briefest of references to what would be considered the “typical” fantasy action, such as battles against the “wicked Wasp Queen” or the Bone Wraiths. Placing these “action scenes” in the background makes clearer that McGuire is more interested in consequences than acts, in what happens after the action, not during. This also allows In an Absent Dream’s wrenching emotional scenes to hit with greater impact, as well as linger longer. Also adding to the impact is how McGuire eschews the easy choice to paint Earth in an artificially grim light, such as by portraying Lundy’s father as overly stern or neglectful. Instead he has both secrets and layers, and offers up a richly complex viewpoint regarding the sort of choice his daughter has to make. McGuire’s entire portrayal of family here ― both actual and found ― is one of the strongest aspects of the novella.
Another theme, of course, is evident in that “Fair Value” requirement of the Market and its implicit comparison with the painfully embedded unfairness of modern capitalism. Sure, the consequences of debt may seem horrific on the surface, but our own history with debt and unfair economics — both historical and current — hardly makes it easy to point fingers. I have my own view on how the two worlds compare, and other readers will surely come to their own, but the goal isn’t “an” answer but more the question.
As noted in my introduction, I came into In An Absent Dream with some skepticism based on how little I enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway, but it won me over with its skill and heart and has left me intrigued about the others.
I had issues with EVERY HEART A DOORWAY, but this one sounds like I might enjoy it, and get quite a bit out of it.