MEC Reviews: The Wayward Children Series Books 1-3 – Seanan McGuire

After breaking my ankle, my attention span seems to be inversely proportionate to the discomfort and aching as it heals. As a result, I’ve had a difficult time keeping focused on reading. Luckily I’ve found that novellas and anthologies are just the right length and I’ve been enjoying borrowing some new-to-me ebooks through the library.

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children is a “what if” series of novellas that looks at what happens after the saccharine sweet fairy tales and stories we’ve grown up with end and gives them a dark and imaginative twist. In so many children’s fairy tales and stories, a child stumbles through a doorway, is swept up in a natural disaster or finds a rabbit hole that leads to a fantastical world. What happens when the child returns? Why that child and why that door? How does a child re-adapt after their time in a land of fantasies or nightmares? What if they long to find a way back?

Becoming the savior of a world of wonder and magic before you turn fourteen does not exactly teach caution, in most cases, and many of the children who fall through the cracks in the world where they were born will one day find themselves opening the wrong door, peering through the wrong keyhole, and standing right back where they started. For some, this is a blessing. For some, it is easy to put the adventures and the impossibilities of the past behind them, choosing sanity and predictability and the world that they were born to be a part of. For others…..

For others, the lure of a world where they fit is too great to escape, and they will spend the rest of their lives rattling at windows and peering at locks, trying to find the way home. Trying to find the one perfect door that can take them there, despite everything, despite the unlikeliness of it all

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children provides a refuge and a respite from the banalities of normal where the children aren’t taught how to forget, but how to move on. This is an intriguing series and there’s definitely a dark and creepy feel pervading the wonderful narrative prose that leaves you a bit unsettled. For every whimsical world full of candy and rainbows, there are worlds of death and malevolence and something dark has come to the school.

There’s a common theme in the books around identity and acceptance – for most of the children, they were set apart from others or supposedly damaged in some way. The doorway that found them led them to a world that allowed them to find the place that they belong.

For us, the places we went were home. We didn’t care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that for the first time we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.”

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

And to be unceremoniously thrown out of that home causes an aching amount of trauma and the children are like addicts, desperate to find another doorway and return.

There’s a fair bit of diversity in the stories – a transgendered boy thrown out of a fairyland because he started off as a beautiful princess and becomes a Goblin Prince in waiting; asexual, pansexual and everything in between characters; as well characters of all shapes and sizes. It’s a nice mix that works well with the themes of identity and acceptance – and allows you to relate and sympathize with the characters.

The narration style of the books fits perfectly with the subject matter. The books read like a fairy tale but geared to adults – the writing is beautifully lyrical and whimsical with a number of asides and observations that are sometimes just this side of snarky, but most often caused me to stop and consider the passages. It’s is very rare that passages stand out and make me stop and think about them, let alone mark them to come back to.

As an added bonus, there’s some beautifully stark illustrations scattered throughout the books. I was reading these on my iPad, so am not sure if they will display on a Kindle. I’m not used to having illustrations in a book, and I was pleasantly surprised and secretly delighted as I paused and admired them. The pictures gave the stories more of a childlike fairy tale feel and, at the same time, emphasized the darker ambiance of the stories.

Overall, I have been enjoying the series. These are novellas, so they are short reads and the writing draws you in quickly and keeps you fascinated as things unfold. Each book is able to stand on its own – although I do recommend reading them in order. There are no cliffhangers that force you to jump right into the next one so you can take your time and savour the books. I like the fact that I can pick them up when I want and sink back into the world(s) that Ms McGuire has created and, if I choose, I can skip ahead to another book.

There are at least three more books in the series – book 4 is a prequel of sorts that tells Lundy’s story before she came to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children and book 5 is a follow up on Jack and Jill. I won’t lie – I’m really eager to read more about Jack and Jill and may break my obsessive compulsive streak and skip right to it.

You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway – The first novella in the series sets the scene and there’s a fairly robust cast of characters so at times its a bit busy. Despite it’s short length, there’s a good bit of worldbuilding and the author sets up the idea that there are myriad doors that open to children – leading to lands based on Nonsense, Logic, Virtue, Wicked and all points in between. What I liked best about this was that there was some moral ambiguity, the definition of wicked is dependent on the person and not every child escapes to a world of lollipops and rainbows – some are drawn to stillness, darkness and horror and as the characters were introduced, I spent a bit of time trying to figure out where on the compass their worlds would fit and why they would have been brought over the threshold.

Nancy Whitman has spent what seems like years in the realm of the Halls of the Dead, learning to be still and yearning to join the court of the Lord and Lady of the Dead. Before she can fully join their world, she has to “be sure” and she’s sent back. Her parents, thinking she had been abducted for years, are at a loss as to why she’s so different than the little girl who vanished.

Her parents loved her, there was no question of that, but their love was the sort that filled her suitcase with colors and kept trying to set her up in dates with local boys. Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

Eleanor West assures them that the school can help and Nancy arrives to find a much different school than she had expected and the students are an odd lot. Despite the fact that they all share similar experiences of going through doors to other realms, mean girls and cliques are as present as in any normal boarding school.

Shortly after Nancy’s arrival, several students are murdered and disfigured, the students’ suspicion turns to Nancy, who was a denizen of an Underworld. Together with Kade, the beautiful boy banished because he wasn’t a girl after all; Christopher, the young man who longs to return to his Skeleton Girl; and Jack, the natty teenage mad scientist who wears a cravat and sleeps on an autopsy table in the basement; Nancy try to find the murderer before more die. There’s a dark and sinister underlay that gives the story a bit of darkness and the kids from the Underworld type realms are a heck of a lot more interesting than those from Fairy or Rainbow worlds. Jack (and her sister Jill) are the standouts – creepy as f***, but absolutely fascinating.

“You must be a lot of fun at parties,” said Christopher.

Jack smirked. “It depends on the kind of party. If there are shovels involved, I’m the life, death, and resurrection of the place.”

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Although Jack gives a synopsis of her and Jill’s history in the first book, this novella digs deeper and provides an absolutely fascinating and haunting addition to the Wayward Children series. I loved Jack in the first novella and think she was the best thing in it. Now there’s a book that is focused on her and her sister? I dove right into this one as soon as I finished Every Heart a Doorway and was not disappointed.

The plight of Jacqueline and Jillian is heartbreaking and cruel. There’s a common theme of choice and consequence – whether the choices are forced upon them or they make themselves.

Every choice feeds every choice that comes after, whether we want those choices or no.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

Initially they are victims of the choices made for them, specifically by their parents who force the girls into their idea of the roles of the perfect little girl and perfect little (tom)boy. They live the lives prescribed and dictated by their parents, but are miserable in the limitations set upon them and have not way of knowing why or how to change.

The trouble with denying children the freedom to be themselves—with forcing them into an idea of what they should be, not allowing them to choose their own paths—is that all too often, the one drawing the design knows nothing of the desires of their model.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

When they open a trunk in the attic, they discover a stairway. For the first time they make a choice on their own – and descend the stairway where they find a door with the words “Be Sure” inscribed above it. The second time they make a choice, they have no context or experience and they find themselves opening the door and walking into a surreal landscape. The world they find is a dark and foreboding, every direction that they could choose could take them from bad to worse – the roiling seas of the Drowned Gods, the mountains inhabited by Werewolves and the Moors. Random choice takes them deeper into the Moors which at first sounds like the right choice, but as the story progresses you wonder if a different direction would have had a better outcome.

The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

The Moors is a gloriously dark place of nightmares inhabited by the Master and Dr Bleak and the girls choose their sides – Jillian (now Jill) throwing off her tomboy persona and embracing the pretty dresses and luxurious life of pampering and walking the parapets that the Master offers and Jaqueline (now Jack) is finally allowed to no longer have sit still and be pretty and roll up her sleeves as she apprentices with the mad scientist who feeds her curiousity and encourages her intelligence (while resurrecting the dead and other mad scientist-y things).

This is a pretty dark story – the Moors is a horror movie come to life with everything and anything that can go bump in the night. The choices that Jack and Jill make change them – for better and for worse. The focus is more on Jack (who I love) and despite the fact that I know what will eventually happen, I was engrossed by the characters and writing.

Beneath the Sugar Sky – The third book in the series picks up some time after (but not much) after the first and introduces some new characters and revisits some familiar ones. When a girl dramatically drops from the sky into the turtle pond demanding to see her mother, Sumi- the young girl who was murdered in the first novella, you can only imagine the confusion. But, at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, they are well versed in Nonsense and take it like a champ.

Nadya, who had spotted the three of them, was waving her arms frantically over her head, signaling her distress. In case this wasn’t enough, she shouted, “Over here! Next to the naked lady!”

“A cake’s a cake, whether or not it’s been frosted,” said the stranger primly.

“You are not a cake, you are a human being, and I can see your vagina,” snapped Nadya.

The stranger shrugged.

“It’s a nice one. I’m not ashamed of it.”

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire

This is a quest story with Cora , Nadya, Kade and Christopher joining with Rini to restore Sumi’s skeleton, ghost and soul and save Rini from being erased from existence. There’s more adventure and action in the book – as it should be with a quest – and we get glimpses into more worlds.

“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, Seanan McGuire

I will admit that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the others. There’s oddities and certain amount of charm, but the darker elements and the deeper ideas of sacrifice and loss weren’t as pronounced. It may also be that the bulk of the book dealt with Nonsense worlds and, if a door were to appear for me, I’m more aligned with the Logic worlds. The world of Confection was just a little too Nonsense to me and I had a harder time accepting and suspending my disbelief.

There seemed to be more POVs and, in a novella, it was harder to connect with the characters when it was moving around so much. Cora was the main character, and although I sympathized with her struggles with the perception that her weight made her less worthy or appreciated, I didn’t think there was a much of an arc for her and that she didn’t shed her doubts or insecurities despite demonstrating her kick-assedness and intelligence.

It is still a good read – but I wonder if I read it too closely behind Down Among the Sticks and Stones and I was expecting a darker and more introspective tale.

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