Logic Reigns and Ruins in Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream

Sentences were invented so Seanan McGuire could write them.

That much is certain from the first lines of In an Absent Dream, the latest portal story in the Hugo and Nebula award-winning series.

In a house, on a street, in a town ordinary enough in every aspect to cross over its own roots and become remarkable, there lived a girl named Katherine Victoria Lundy. She had a brother, six years older and a little bit wild in the way of boys who could look over their shoulders and see the shadow of a war standing there, its jaws open and hungry. She had a sister, six years younger and a little bit shy in the way of children who had yet to decide whether they would be timid or brave, kind or cruel. She had two parents who loved her and a small ginger cat who purred when she stroked its back, and everything was lovely, and everything was terrible.

McGuire has criss-crossed the waters of fantasy (and science fiction, in the guise of Mira Grant) and spun off more than one finely crafted and well-regarded series. But it is in her Wayward Children novellas—tenderly rendered portraits of children lost and found—that her writing soars and sears most, dripping with fairy-tale enchantment and despair.

Every Heart a Doorway introduced Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children and its pupils, all children who had traveled by various magical means to fantasy realms, and then been unceremoniously returned to the mundane world through their respective rabbit holes. Tumbling after came Down Among the Sticks and Bones, a prequel set in the bleak Moors discovered by twins Jack and Jill, and Beneath the Sugar Sky, which moved the action forward (and sideways and slantways) to the sugary land of Confection.

Now arrives In an Absent Dream, another origin story for a character we’ve met (and, well, un-met): Lundy, the school therapist, who ages ever-so-slowly in reverse. When we first meet her here, before her time aiding Eleanor West’s mission, she is a practical girl, quiet and studious, never one to make a fuss—or make all that many friends. So, it’s a surprise when she finds a doorway in the trunk of a tree and makes the illogical decision of stepping through it.

On the other side she encounters the Goblin Market, a High Logic world (to use the parlance of the Wayward Children continuum) that asks—nay, demands—that “Fair Value” be offered in all transactions—be they mercantile or personal. It’s a perfect fit for Lundy—well, until it isn’t. We’ve seen where and how (gruesomely) Lundy’s adventures in portal land end; what In an Absent Dream provides is the emotional gut punch that accompanies that severing.

In the Goblin Market, Lundy feels at home. She makes a friend in her opposite, the impulsive Moon, and together, they undertake many quests. But never far from Lundy’s mind is the choice she must make: unlike the other portal worlds introduced by this series to date, the Goblin Market allows its visitors to come and go freely until their eighteenth birthdays, at which point, they have the choice to take an oath of fealty and remain, or to be forever banished from its confines.

Lundy visits the Market several times throughout her youth, growing up in fits and starts in that world and her own. The continual push-and-pull she feels between the two realms mirrors the emotional split-screen of adolescence, the tug of war between childhood and the world of adults.

In the Goblin Market, failure to provide “Fair Value” for assistance, support, or service has increasingly disastrous consequences. But what Lundy must grapple with is the “Fair Value” of a life, of her life. She senses the call of home with Moon and this world of logic, but she also feels the tug of responsibility to the family she repeatedly leaves behind. In such a situation, how do you even begin to calculate what is fair?

Just as she has in the previous Wayward Children stories, McGuire packs an impossible amount of emotional resonance into this slim novella, limned with language both magical and melancholic. But this entry, in particular, captures the pristine pleasures and pain of growing up. If the world has ever fallen short of your expectations, you’ll feel for Lundy, and fall for her story.

In an Absent Dream is available January 8.

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