The rules at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children are fairly straightforward: no solicitations, no visitors, and no quests. All three them get broken in the first few pages of Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third novella in Seanan McGuire’s dazzling and darling series of portal stories.
Every Heart a Doorway introduced Eleanor West, her school, and its pupils—all children who’d found a door to a fantasy world and gone through it, discovering new worlds that felt more home than the real one—some logical and some less so, some buoyant and bubbly, and others dark and tangled. Eventually, each of those children was ejected from their new home, tumbling back through the rabbit hole, or the wardrobe, or the nursery window, or whatever, only to land back home, in a place that no longer understands them. The follow-up, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, illustrated that cruel journey quite clearly with the origin story for twin sisters Jack and Jill, who found their home in the bleak desolation of The Moors.
Beneath the Sugar Sky, the next in the interrelated (though not necessarily sequential) series, brings us to a world that couldn’t be farther from the monstrousness of the Moors, as we’re taken on a quest—yes, one of those forbidden things!—to the land of Confection, where the sea is strawberry soda, the crops are candy corn, and the villain is the Queen of Cakes.
If it sounds like heaven, well, you’re partly right. One of the most important aspects of the Wayward Children series is its emphasis on individuality: every child is different, and every world is different, and only certain children will be suited to certain worlds. It’s about fit and about identity. Cakes for some; corpses for others.
That becomes clear when Rini drops from the sky outside of Eleanor West’s school, demanding to be taken to her mother, Sumi, a student who died years earlier (before Rini was born, in fact) but was apparently destined to fulfill a prophecy in Confection. One of the upsides of being from a Nonsense world is that this sort of premature death is not, as it turns out, an insurmountable obstacle.
That said, time is still of the essence, in more ways than one. Rini is disappearing inch by inch (and appendage by appendage), and the Queen of Cakes—previously overthrown and killed by Sumi—is now back in charge, having drawn the long end of the time paradox stick. Naturally, the scraggly gang of portal children are determined to find a way to bring back their fallen comrade and ensure their strange new friend will eventually-come-to-already-exist (did I mention this one is set in a Nonsense world?).
Along for the ride are several students fighting their own battles: Kade, whose discovery of his transgender identity complicated his stay in a hostile Fairyland; Christopher, whose preferred skeletal Underworld, Mariposa, is beautiful to him and disturbing to most everyone else; Nadya, obsessed with returning to her Drowned World and to her beloved turtles; and Cora, a relative newcomer whose anxiety about her weight has intensified since her return from a mermaid world.
All of them will be essential to the mission as they crisscross portals not their own and gather up the components that make a Sumi: her skeleton, her spirit, and, finally, her nonsense.
There is a reason this series has won just about every fantasy award around, and it’s on full display here, as the diverse group of misfits treks through our world and others, from the Halls of the Dead to Confection, to complete their journey and bake Sumi back to life. The atmosphere can turn from bright to bleak on a dime, without ever losing the vivid imagination that makes this story—and Rini’s very existence—possible.
There is as much heart as sugar here, and the tenderness with which McGuire portrays her lost children never turns saccharine. That leaves Beneath the Sugar Sky as delicious a story as you could hope or hunger for.