Fairy tales, myths, folklore; these small, archetypal tales that have endured through generations of childhood. Seanan McGuire reinvented them once again for the current decade. Solid writing, acceptable plotting, imaginative characterization all combine to make this an intriguing read.
Nancy is the New Girl, arriving at the Home for Wayward Children after having disappeared for weeks. Her parents don’t know what to do about her almost-starvation, her stillness and her predilection for wearing black. She’s met by Eleanor and put in a room with Sumi, a whirling dervish of color and energy. Sumi and the rest of the young adults at the Home have all been to other worlds and back, and they are all longing to be somewhere else.
“‘Going back’ had two distinct meanings at the school, depending on how it was said. It was the best thing in the world. It was also the worst thing that could happen to anybody. It was returning to a place that understood you so well that it had reached across realities to find you, claiming you as its own and only; it was being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you. The duality of the phrase was like the duality of the doors: they changed lives, and they destroyed them, all with the same, simple invitation.”
And there, my friends, is half of what I both hate and love about McGuire. She was showing us this, with the suitcase full of rainbow clothes left by Nancy’s parents. Why did she have to tell us this? Yet it is so beautifully worded and such a wonderfully full underpinning to a story.
The conflict within the children has an interesting foundation–the difference between Virtuous worlds, and those that are Wicked–but is clumsily executed, appearing only after the first incident. Nancy thinks her world would be on the ‘Wicked’ access because it was ruled by the Underworld, but it’s clear it isn’t any more violent than the others. Yet this is supposedly the basis for the teens’ animosity. I think I would have liked to see more of the interpersonal tension develop from the beginning instead of feeling like a tired behavior trope was being hauled out for convenience and to escalate conflict. It’s not clear why Eleanor jokes–I think–about Nancy and Sumi killing each other and yet finds it acceptable to room them together. In retrospect, I’m not sure the conflict between students was needed at all.
I found the details regarding sexuality distracting and rather awkward. In the end, it felt like McGuire Had A Point To Make, rather than being a more organic part of character and world-building. I’ve thought about it a bit, and wonder if she was trying to make connections between growing up, identity, and belonging, with sexuality as a component of those things, but it felt incompletely realized. It was also too fast, too out front; if one knows anything about teenagers and alternative lifestyles, it’s that they aren’t going to share unless they are Making A Point or feel very safe. The ambiguity in interpretation means it doesn’t quite reach a five star for me. The terribly overt messaging, a few too many deaths, and lazy group dynamics prevent it from reaching stellar. Quite good, though.