Book review: In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire (4.25 stars)
If you’re not already reading Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, it’s one I’d highly recommend. It’s a series of novellas that explores the adventures as well as the consequences of portal fantasy, where children are spirited away from our world to other, stranger worlds better suited to their individual natures, and then are often forced to return to reality afterwards and deal with the loss of the world they have been made to abandon. In An Absent Dream is the fourth installment of this series, which has followed different main characters in every iteration, and focuses on a girl named Lundy and her escape into the rule-bound yet treacherous world of the Goblin Market. There, deals and bargains are struck according to the invisible hand of the concept of fair value, and incurring too much debt means losing pieces of your humanity.
It’s hard to say for sure, since I’m a big fan of the Wayward Children series as a whole, but I think that In An Absent Dream is my new favorite of the four books. It’s probably because I identified more with Lundy, our protagonist, more than I have with previous characters. Like many of us bookworms, I grew up reading constantly, like Lundy; like Lundy, I also tended to follow the rules and do well in school, although I also always searched for loopholes and ways to be creative while still staying out of trouble. When I was younger, I also believed strongly in karma, our world’s version of the concept of fair value–that the actions you put out into the world would eventually come back around to you, if not always directly, then in some form or another. And so I loved reading about the intricacies of the rules governing the Goblin Market and about Lundy falling into deeper understanding of them as she grows older.
Books that fall into the category of fairytale retellings or re-imaginings of classic concepts like portal fantasy can sometimes struggle with whether to imagine a retelling that is darker or sweeter than the tales they pay homage to. In the case of In An Absent Dream, I thought that Seanan McGuire perfectly balanced the wonder and beauty of a traditional portal fantasy with the darker edges of growing up in a world where even the concept of fairness itself may not even be truly fair. The result is a story that becomes more and more urgent as Lundy gradually approaches the age of eighteen, where she will be forced to permanently choose between the real world and the Goblin Market, which seems to have become her true home. It’s a story that feels true in the way that great fantasy literature sometimes can, because it makes a strange kind of sense; my only wish is that it could have been longer, and some of Lundy’s adventures in the Market explored further. I’d highly recommend this book and series to fans of portal fantasy and books like In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, and the Magicians series by Lev Grossman, that lovingly critique and explore classic tropes of the genre while making them into something entirely new.
Thank you so much to the YA Cafe Podcast and to Tor.com publishing for the opportunity to win an ARC of In An Absent Dream.