Over the Woodward Wall (2020) began its life as an imagined book, existing merely as a set of excerpts “quoted” at the end of certain chapters in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. But these excerpts were compelling enough that McGuire decided to use them as the building blocks for an actual fantasy series, using the pseudonym A. Deborah Baker (the alchemist credited with authoring this book in Middlegame).
Avery and Hepzibah (“Zib”) are two “very different, very ordinary” children who live on the same ordinary street but don’t know each other at all. They’re as far apart as A and Z in their personalities: Zib is free-spirited and adventurous, with a mass of frizzy, untamed hair; Avery is cautious, neat and sensible. One morning, on their walk to school, they find themselves faced with a stone wall that blocks their way. When they climb to the top of the wall, their town disappears and they find themselves in a strange, fantastical land, the Up-and-Under, filled with even stranger creatures. Immense candy-colored owls speak to them; a girl breaks up into crows and then reforms.
A boulder unfolds into a man and advises Avery and Zib to follow the Improbable Road to the Impossible City, and ask the Queen of Wands there to help them get home. There’s both wild adventure and deadly danger before them, and they’ll need each other to get back to their home world. But they need to escape the dangers of this world, and especially keep out of the clutches of the cruel Page of Frozen Waters and her master, the King of Cups.
There’s a sense of familiarity to Over the Woodward Wall, and it’s not just from the excerpts that appeared in Middlegame, which McGuire has woven into the text of this book. The parallels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are obvious, and the story has the same episodic, meandering plot, though the actual details are different and the dangers are more pressing. Stylistically it fits in more with McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN series, where children wander through a magical portal into a fantasy world that follows an unfamiliar set of rules. The wise and insightful omniscient narrator, a voice that McGuire uses to such good effect in her WAYWARD CHILDREN books, also makes an appearance here.
Over the Woodward Wall was referenced in Middlegame as the basis for a completely different worldview, one that L. Frank Baum was intentionally diverting readers away from when he wrote his OZ books. In that sense, Middlegame set up expectations that Woodward Wall doesn’t quite live up to, at least in this first book of the UP-AND-UNDER series. I have to admit I expected something more from Woodward Wall based on the groundwork laid in Middlegame. Middlegame was mind-blowing and wildly creative; Over the Woodward Wall, despite its fantastical Oz-like setting, is somewhat mundane in comparison, never rising to the same imaginative heights.
Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable and whimsical fantasy portal tale, with the perceptive narrative voice doing most of the heaving lifting in making this story better than your standard run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure. The reader can see Zib and Avery begin to subtly change as a result of their growing friendship and their frequently life-threatening escapades, with Zib learning that all adventures aren’t wondrous and delightful, and Avery learning that he can be more courageous and daring than he would have guessed. Perhaps they’ll meet in the middle of the alphabet by the time they make their way out of the Up-and-Under.
Over the Woodward Wall ends mid-tale: it’s not quite a cliff-hanger, but the overall story arc is clearly unfinished. The adventures of Avery and Zib in the Up-and-Under are just beginning.