An Abundance of Candy!
Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third novella in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire. For those new to this series, Every Heart a Doorway, the first book and Hugo/Nebula Award-winning novella, features a boarding school for children who have fallen into magical worlds, with a headmistress named Eleanor, an old woman who also fell through a doorway as a child. So imagine the Pevensie children of Narnia, upon returning to the real world, are shipped off to a boarding school to recover from their imagined fantasies. In the first novella readers are introduced to the concept that doors open to children, many are kicked out, and once they return to Earth a door may reopen…or else it is lost forever.
They range from logical to nonsense, yet all are fantastical. EHaD features Nancy, a teenager who drifted into an underworld and longs to go back to the Lord of the Dead. Her roommate at Eleanor’s school, Sumi, lived in a nonsense world called Confection, the heroine of a Candyland before she was exiled and eventually murdered in Every Heart a Doorway.
The first and second novella in this series are charming, unique takes on the portal fantasy genre. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the second in this series, is a prequel focusing on the twin girls who spark Sumi’s murder. Jacqueline and Jillian (Jack and Jill) are twin girls who stumbled into a logical horror portal world where they were separated into two factions: those of the mad scientist and the vampire overlord. As a fan of horror, I was delighted to dig into DAtSaB, and enjoyed McGuire’s writing style and how she fleshes out a portal, logical horror world. DAtSaB’s charm came from the premise: a horror portal world (the Moors) that explained why Jill murdered Sumi and other students at Eleanor’s school. Beneath the Sugar Sky returns as a sequel to EHaD, as the students of the boarding school recover after the murders. Cora, the protagonist, is a new student who was a mermaid in her portal world. However, this third installment missed the mark for me.
A Mermaid in a Soda Sea
Cora is a new character, and with the introduction of so many new worlds the story loses a bit of its charm as the reader learns about Cora’s issues and her portal world, where she was a mermaid. She is a new student who sees a girl, Sumi’s prophesied daughter, fall from the sky and into a pond. From there, Rini, Sumi’s future daughter, arrives on Earth to announce that she is there to see her mother and restore balance to Confection. She convinces the current students to use their various powers taken from their portal worlds to resurrect her mother.
Personally, as a reader, the introduction of a new narrator into an already established world we knew existed for a particular character broke the charm. While Cora and her portal world is interesting, it took away from the nonsensical world of Confection, which, from what little we saw of it, has massive implications for all of the portal worlds. I would have preferred reading about Confection from an existing character, in particular Cade, who was kicked out of his portal world when the goblins realized he was a prince, rather than a princess. Since McGuire established that boys are less likely to find doorways than girls in book 1, I find the concept fascinating not only because I want to see the perspective of a boy, but also see how the portals work from a transgender character. The implications of this concept is merely hinted at (the goblins sparking a war and kicking him out after he has been crowned the goblin prince) and is much more fascinating than Cora. The lovely Baker, who maintains the structure of Confection, also seems a far more delightful choice to explore the world.
That is not to say that BtSS does not contribute to the universe. In fact, it introduced world-shattering concepts I felt were undermined by the choice of Cora as the narrator.
Some interesting facts we now know:
- Doors cannot only appear between Earth and the other worlds, but doors also appear between portal worlds
- People can travel between worlds with the help of magical objects
- Magical objects brought into the the real world can delay or cure terminal illnesses, and if taken away can return the illness to the child
- Children who fall into portal worlds can become godlike. Evident by the appearance of The Baker, a Muslim/Arab-American teenager who is the goddess of Confection
- Prism, Cade’s portal world, seems to be a central portal world that processes children traveling to and from worlds
- Children of portal worlds can find a doorway to Earth, if Earth is more suitable to them than their nonsense or logical world
- Eleanor’s door has not reopened for her, but many of her students’ doorways have
- Children can travel to other worlds via a doorway not meant for them, but with the intention of returning to their original portal world
- A significant amount of students in the series had their doorways open again for them (Nancy, Nadya, Jack and Jill)
What does this mean for the world?
If McGuire continues I predict that more rules will become clear as to the criteria of how portal worlds choose children, why they choose children to complete certain tasks that other children have attempted before, and why doors can appear between worlds. Confection had more rules than I thought, and didn’t appear quite as nonsense as, say, Alice in Wonderland. If McGuire continues I expect these worlds to collide in some way.
With so many worlds yet to explore in such short novellas, it would be easy for McGuire to whip up a baker’s dozen worth of stories. I’m certainly interested in future books. While this installment did not hit my sweet spot, it is sure to delight others, for there are still many treats and sweets yet to be discovered.