Katharine Coldiron Reviews Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Over the Woodward Wall, A. Deborah Baker (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-76539-927-4, $17.99, 208pp, hc) November 2020.

First things first: I must confess that I have no context for the book I’m about to review. I’ve gathered that it’s a fictional primer of sorts written into Seanan McGuire’s 2019 novel Middlegame. (There is virtually no pretense to the author of this book, A. Deborah Baker, being a real person, rather than a pen name of Seanan McGuire.) I think this is a Tales of Beedle the Bard situation, but I have not read Middlegame, and it seems like a complicated enough novel that I couldn’t find much information on how Over the Woodward Wall is integrated into it.

Nevertheless – and understanding fully that I am likely missing levels of meaning that Middlegame readers will pick up – I loved this book. It feels like a dispatch from an earlier era of publishing, when only a handful of authors were crafting worthy books for young people over eight and under 16, when such books told fanciful tales that broke the heart and then soothed the soul. McGuire, as Baker, tells the tale as if she’s telling the tale. She addresses the reader kindly, and she signposts how events and choices could go differently if only humans were a little less flawed. I was reminded of my most beloved books from childhood: The Phantom Tollbooth, the Chronicles of Narnia, Finn Family Moomintroll. Like those old friends, Over the Woodward Wall made me feel as if the book was caring for me, individually, and that its love language was storytelling.

The plot is quite straightforward, and familiar to anyone who’s read books like the ones in the prior paragraph. Two children, Avery and Zib, find themselves in the middle of an adventure, in the Oz-like land of the Up-and-Under. This realm is divided into kingdoms ruled by regents of the tarot (although that is never specified): the King of Cups, the Queen of Swords, the King of Coins, the Queen of Wands. The children meet compan­ions like the Crow Girl, a murder of crows in the shape of a girl, who is goodhearted but fickle in her loyalty; three owls of unusual size, who appear to help about as reliably as Tolkien’s great eagles; and Niamh, a girl from a frozen city she can’t reach until the next time it thaws, which it only does every hundred years. Zib and Avery, who are as much opposites as each end of the alphabet, must make their way across the Up-and-Under to the Impossible City, where they can ask the Queen of Wands to send them home.

If all this seems overly familiar, well, that’s not quite wrong. All the elements of Over the Woodward Wall are recognizable, if renamed and rejiggered to tell the story of these particular characters. However, it’s long been proven that McGuire is a captivating writer. Though the book does not exactly surprise in the shape of its narrative or the behavior of its characters, it does provide sincere enjoyment. In fact, the language often innovates and delights: “Let’s break her like a bone and leave her for the sun to steal,” says one enemy. A man is described as “old as wishes, as old as winter,” and a rock is described as “veined in pink and black and creamy white, like a scoop of harlequin ice cream.” Plus, like all those who write beautifully for young people, McGuire’s alter ego has a knack for telling hard truths by explaining sudden disillusionment: “Avery… had been allowed the luxury of thinking that childhood was somehow sacred: that it somehow compelled the world to be kind.”

Despite the age of its main characters and the clear precedents of its style, Over the Woodward Wall does not openly claim to be a kids’ book. This, too, reminds me of those childhood books I loved. Writ­ing for young people is stratified and standardized in the current moment: picture books, chapter books, middle-grade books, so forth. As a kid, I enjoyed reading books that experts hadn’t judged as suitable for me. I liked reading books both too old for me and too young for me, and discovering which parts I understood too well or too little. Woodward Wall feels like that, too, as if it can be read at most any age and then wear well over time.

The only real trouble with the book is how obvi­ously it represents the first slice of its characters’ story, how plainly the closing scenes are not an end, but a transition to the next portion. I appreciate that fantasy books are commonly (and profitably) in series these days, but in its last quarter, the novel’s feeling is one of deliberately not telling a complete story, which sours the experience. Still, Over the Woodward Wall is delectable, a ripe treat for lifelong readers and, presumably, for lovers of McGuire’s previous work. It’s filled with adventure and wisdom, and it navigates well-worn ideas with fresh enthusiasm.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

This review and more like it in the November 2020 issue of Locus.

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