This series is everything I wanted (and more) from Miss Peregrine’s…of which I was not a fan. The first book, Every Heart a Doorway—and how can you not love a book with that title—wasn’t my favorite, but was special because of what it was: a love letter to days spent wandering through attics and cellars, woods and riverbeds, and all the other mysterious places I spent my childhood in search of that One Magic Thing.
I never knew what I was looking for when I dug through my grandmother’s sewing room or lingered in the wooded patch behind my elementary school, but whatever it was, these kids, these wayward children, found it. Or rather, it found them, and led them to a place that suited them…sometimes a bit too well. When these underworlds, fairylands, and other fantastical realms spit them out they were left traumatized, heartbroken to find themselves back in a world that didn’t want them.
This is where Miss Eleanor and her School for Wayward Children comes in to soothe their ache and, if possible, help them find their ways back home. In Every Heart a Doorway we are introduced to Eleanor and her cast of Alices, Dorothys, and Wendys returned: Sumi, whose destiny is to return to Confection and overthrow the Queen of Cakes; Cade, who was expelled from Prism when the fairies discovered they had taken a little boy instead of a little girl; Christopher, who fell in love with a skeleton girl in Mariposa; Jacqueline and Jillian, twins who found love in a dark and dreary world called The Moors; and Nancy, Eleanor’s newest student and recently returned from an underworld ruled by the Lord of the Dead.
It sounds like a lot, but trust me when I say that McGuire introduces this varied and sometimes ridiculous cast organically, in such a way that it makes perfect sense when Cade and Eleanor start explaining high logic worlds vs. high nonsense worlds discussing the difference between underworlds, netherworlds, and afterlifes. It’s a book written for readers of fables fairytales and fantasies, so many of the concepts will feel familiar even if it’s almost impossible to describe to a stranger.
The main plot of Every Heart a Doorway revolves around a series of tragedies that begin soon after Nancy arrives at Eleanor’s school, and while this main plot is a fairly straightforward mystery, it is propelled by the sense of magic that pervades McGuire’s fantastic storytelling.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, my favorite book in the series so far, is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway and tells the story of Jacqueline and Jillian’s time in The Moors. It’s spooky and dark and plays out much like a horror movie, but it’s impossible to shake the magical optimism of McGuire’s tone. This might hinder the book’s ability to be a true horror story, but instead turns it into something new. Though this place is terrifying and cruel creatures hide in every shadow, the twins know the Moors to be home.
These books are short, about 4 hours on audio, and while I didn’t have an issue with the pacing in the first book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a simpler story that is much more suited to this length. We get a good deal of story before the twins find the Moors, and still have time for them to find love, find themselves, only to loose it all in the cruelest way possible. Their time in their true home becomes like a mean prank by the end, and my only issue with this book (or rather, where their story concludes in Every Heart a Doorway) is that we have yet to get a true resolution to their story.
The third book, Beneath a Sugar Sky, was much less satisfying.
Had I read this one first I probably would not have been as disappointed with it, but it just didn’t live up to the rest of the series. (Note: Even though this series is very loosely connected and could be read out of order, I also would have been severely spoiled, so if that’s something you care about don’t take this as a suggestion to start here instead.)
My biggest problem was the pacing. The beauty of the first two books is that they are contained in a single space, and their scope mirrors the fairy tales that inspired them. The characters in Beneath a Sugar Sky travel through several doors to several worlds, as different from each other as night from day from cake from onions. It’s all over the place, but the length of this book is the same as its predecessors: about 4 hours listening time, which is not nearly long enough to do this story justice. Because of this certain plot devices feel awfully convenient, and characters who were not already introduced in previous books were left underdeveloped.
This leads me to my second problem: Cora. The POV character of this story, she is relatively new to The School for Wayward Children after returning from a water world where she was a mermaid. This was an odd choice for the series, since by now we’re all familiar with the way these worlds work, and by introducing a new character for the POV we end up wasting a lot of time listening to the other characters explain things to her that we already know.
She is also characterized entirely by the fact that she is fat. The trend so far in the series is to characterize people by the world they came from, since the doors seem to appear to those who need them and send them to the places they need to be. So it is that calm, still Nancy ends up in an underworld, inquisitive and observant Jacqueline is apprenticed to a mad scientist in the Moors, and nonstop Sumi rules a world of sugar and nonsense. But by the end of the story Cora’s defining trait is still her weight. This wouldn’t be as bad without the added sting that we are constantly reminded that in addition to being fat Cora is also an athlete and has been her entire life, a fact that McGuire casually tosses around as if to apologize for including an overweight character. “She’s a fat girl, but she’s the right kind of fat girl,” she seems to say at every turn, reminding us, intentionally or not, that fat girls who aren’t constantly trying to not be fat are unacceptable.
The fact that this lingered throughout the book was the tipping point for me, and while I still loved McGuire’s writing and I adore the world she has created, it was one problem too many and too large for me to really enjoy the latter half of the book when I realized that this was as far as Cora was going to be developed. It’s thus far my least favorite book in the series, and one that I might even recommend skipping if any of this has left a particularly bitter taste in your mouth.
All of that aside, I am still very much looking forward to In an Absent Dream, the completely standalone fourth novella in the series out next February. I hope it hews closer to Down Among the Sticks and Bones, as there are few things more heartbreaking to an obsessive book nerd than being let down by a beloved author.
UPDATE: In an Absent Dream
Perks of being a bookseller: ARCs! I snagged an early copy of In an Absent Dream and put all my other books on hold to tear through it. I’m happy to report that it does read more like Down Among the Sticks and Bones, though I don’t know that it’s completely standalone, as much as any book in a shared universe can be. It follows Katherine Lundy, Eleanor’s right hand woman from Every Heart a Doorway, through her own door to the adventure to the Goblin Market and eventually to Eleanor.
Despite the fact that Lundy moves between worlds several times during the novella, it isn’t as disjointed as Beneath a Sugar Sky. The narrative is still not as smooth as I would like, but the occasional temporal whiplash we suffer as readers mimics the disconnect Lundy feels moving between worlds. Like any of the books in this series, they could easily be novels, and we know McGuire is prolific enough to pull it off, which leaves me wondering if their short length is a nod to the narrative structure of classic fairy tales. But it still leaves me wanting a little more meat: more development of Lundy’s relationships with the Archivist, Moon, and Mockery; more details on her various adventures in the Goblin Market; and more about how the concept of fair value trade functions in practice.
But this book isn’t about any of those things–it’s about Lundy, which is fine, I guess. I still loved reading it, even though the experience was different since I listened to the others on audio. These stories lend themselves really well to audio, but I did appreciate getting to really immerse myself in McGuire’s language (which is one of the main things that keeps me coming back to these books–they are so well written) and reread passages I especially loved.
So because my brain likes lists, the current ranking of this series is:
1) Down Among the Sticks and Bones
2) In an Absent Dream
3) Every Heart a Doorway
4) Beneath a Sugar Sky
Finally, since this book has not yet been released, a few other spoilery things below.
One thing I really wanted was to know more about Mockery. They die in the battle with the Wasp Queen, which we don’t even get to see and only hear about after the fact. Lundy returns to her birth world after that, victorious but traumatized and determined never to go back, but McGuire never really digs into that trauma in a meaningful way. Only so much to be done in such a short book I suppose, but Lundy’s adventures with her friends are glazed over throughout the book to focus instead on Lundy’s growing conflict about where she will spend her time. She needs to either 1) take the citizenship oath and agree to stay in the Goblin Market forever, or 2) be kicked out on her eighteenth birthday. She has family in both places and it’s tearing her apart, especially once she discovers that her father was also called to the Goblin Market. But her indecision grates on you by the end, when she inevitably tries to cheat the rules by taking a serum that will prevent her from turning 18, theoretically allowing her to travel back and forth indefinitely.
But everyone else, including the readers, knows where Lundy’s inability to choose is leading, and the knowing makes it that much more frustrating. This isn’t a bad thing, especially knowing what happens in Every Heart a Doorway, but maybe we would be less frustrated and more understanding if we had a little more insight into her relationships with both worlds.