In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9929-8, $17.99, 192pp, tp) January 2019.
In Seanan McGuire’s elegantly written In an Absent Dream, readers are taken on a years-long coming-of-age story through the Goblin Market that proves to be just as insightful about our own world as the fantastic one she creates. This new entry in the Wayward Children series (which can be enjoyed as a standalone) follows an established theme: a child (eight-year-old Katherine Lundy) stumbles upon a door that takes her to another world. What Lundy finds there is a series of rules that make far more sense than those at home and a place where she feels that she belongs. In spite of herself, she misses her family, and over the years becomes locked in a pattern of leaving and returning, until a looming intractable deadline presents itself and she must commit to one place or the other, even though neither is a victory on this complicated journey to adulthood.
Katherine’s adventure initially presents itself as exceedingly traditional. She is an overlooked and generally taken-for-granted child who is accustomed to doing all the right things to keep the family peace. This, of course, makes her exactly the sort of fictional child who is primed for an impossible door to appear on the side of a tree and lead her to a place of creatures and cakes and a wise Archivist/mother figure who sees and values all of her hidden complicatedness.
McGuire is matter-of-fact when telling Katherine’s story, whether she is in the “normal” world or that of the Goblin Market. Her great heroic battles take place largely off the page, while the conflicts that dominate the narrative involve Katherine’s largely pleasant father and best friend. The magic swirls across the plot, but it is as she faces her own family history and the conflicting loyalties of those she loves on each side of the door that the novel’s true coming-of-age theme shines through. We all face questions about who we want to be and how we want to live; Katherine’s are just more spectacular than most.
Seanan McGuire impresses so much within the pages of In an Absent Dream; she makes the balancing act between fantasy and family drama look easy while never letting one overshadow the other. Her descriptions of the Goblin Market, while far less fanciful than expected, quietly allow its more outrageous moments to shine. And Katherine’s inner conflict, her desire to be part of a brilliant world rather than disappear into the placid dullness she once considered home, propel the plot far more than the flash and bang of feather-filled punishments and a wicked Wasp Queen. Consider the precise effectiveness of this early description of the young girl who could be so easy to ignore:
This, then, was Katherine Lundy: pretty and patient and practical. Not lonely, because she had never really considered any way of being other than alone. Not gregarious, nor sullen, but somewhere in the middle, happy to speak when spoken to, happy also to carry on in silence, keeping her thoughts tucked quietly away. She was ordinary. She was remarkable.
We want to know more after reading those words. McGuire makes us want to know so much more.
This is an author who knows how to romance a reader in the best of ways: she makes you love her words and then her characters and then her story and once she has you, as she does so often in this entire series, you will never want to leave.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2019 issue of Locus.
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