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Novella Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Title: Where the Drowned Girls Go

Author: Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children #7

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you’ve already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company. There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn’t as friendly as Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. And it isn’t as safe. When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn’t save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster. She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming… -Goodreads

The Review:

I’ve had so much fun with this series. It’s such a breath of fresh air between all of the dense fantasy novels I’ve been reading lately.

I don’t generally read overviews, preferring to go into everything a little blind. With this series, I was even less inclined to see what was next – the surprise of what McGuire had in store for me was one of the main draws of the series. Even when I get an indication from the title, as was the case here, I still never know what direction the author is going to take, and I love that. In a market where there’s a lot of formulaic storytelling, something that’s completely unconventional is a welcome variation.

I wasn’t totally sure what this novella would bring, but I was hopeful it would still follow one of my favorite characters of the series so far: Cora. I really love everything about her. Even though Beneath the Sugar Sky wasn’t her story, I found meaning in her POV – an acceptance of herself and a celebration of body positivity that was inspiring. Her growth arc in this book was a little more understated, but it gave her a lot more dimension and I can see the buddings of some profound convictions forming that will hopefully play a role in future installments.

So far in the series we’ve experienced some pretty weird stuff. Hair-raising phenomenon like shocking murders, corpse reanimation, and man-eating kelpies. But this novella, which takes place in our realm, was easily the eeriest one yet. It had that very clinical, white-coat regimented conviction that there’s something wrong with these kids and they’re going to “fix” them no matter what. Certain elements regarding this part of the story introduced what I thought was a brilliant idea for an overarching conflict for the series. And although I’ve been terrible at predicting so far where things are going to go next, I really hope that idea is explored heavily in future novellas. As is, I cannot wait for the next one!

Recommendations: this portal fantasy series is awesome if you like cool concepts, unconventional storytelling, great representation in characters, and food for thought beyond what’s on the pages.

I would like to thank TOR Publishing for an early copy of Where the Drowned Go – it prompted a read of the whole series that ended up being a highlight of my year. Thank you!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Novella Reviews: Wayward Children 4-6 by Seanan McGuire

Book Info: In an Absent Dream (#4)

Rating: 5/5 stars! (Yes, a solid 5/5 – a rare occurrence for me)

This was by far my favorite installment of the series. Not only did it follow whom I consider the most interesting character introduced in the first book (among many), it also told her story in a perfectly-paced, completely absorbing manner. It doesn’t hurt matters that this was also my favorite world that we’ve been to thus far – a “goblin” market where everything is a transaction, and committing to more than you can handle comes with some serious consequences. To be totally honest, I’m not sure where the “goblin” aspect factors in, surmising that it’s based on lore I’m not familiar with. Regardless, it was vibrant and eerie and I loved every moment. Several of these novellas have given me food for thought – introducing ideas beyond the scope of the book that have me pondering well beyond the pages – but this is the first one that really made me feel something for the characters. It was beautiful and tragic and lovely and heart-wrenching, and if I wasn’t already committed to reading the rest of the series before, I certainly am now.

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Book Info: Come Tumbling Down (#5)

Rating: 2/5 stars

Truthfully, anything would’ve seemed second-rate to the In an Absent Dream (the book right before this one), but then take into account how much I already didn’t love this set of characters and how less than enthusiastic I was to spend more time with them and, well, here we are.

I had a lot of issues with character plausibility and consistency of behavior in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but those luckily didn’t bother me much here. I initially liked that it was going to involve more of the wayward children, but they really didn’t contribute much to the plot. No, indeed, to me they felt like just extra bodies moving from place to place without any real purpose other than to produce a couple of awkward setups for the next novellas (and weird additions to the world that didn’t seem to fit at all. Contrived). With the previous book, I read it slowly, savoring every word and hoping it would continue forever. In this one, I found myself speed reading, impatient to just get it over with “for crying out loud.” The author and I obviously differ in our preferences. These characters seem to be her favorites, as she only narrated the two audiobooks associated with them. And who knows? Maybe the change in voice and lack of the beautifully subtle character nuances achieved by the other narrator is the underlying reason why I’m not loving these as much. Whatever the reason though, I’m hoping we’ll lay this world to rest for a while and focus on the many other cool prospects out there.

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Book Info: Across the Green Grass Fields (#6)

Rating: 3/5 stars

In most of the novellas, I’ve really enjoyed the backstories for the characters where we get a glimpse at the traumas they’ve faced that led them to their doors. Occasionally though I think it takes too much time away from the world-exploration aspect of the plot. While this was actually my favorite backstory yet, I think it came at the sacrifice of the world we eventually got to visit. But I’ll get there in a moment.

These books have a lot of extra meaning for me. They’re incredibly inclusive and talk openly about issues children face when they don’t conform to our society’s outdated definition of what it means to be “normal.” It was kind of a weird experience to see these young girls deal with “clicks” and snap judgments from a Queen Bee at a very young age. You usually don’t see representation like that in media until the teen years (Mean Girls) but things like ostracizing and bullying by ignoring people starts sooo much earlier than we’re led to believe. It did for me, and so even just reading about a hint of what it’s like going through that was oddly therapeutic – kids do horrible things to other kids and oftentimes it’s not even for a clear reason. It’s most definitely not because the victim did anything “wrong.”

I’ve mentioned I love the bit of psychological evaluation I can do while reading this series – it keeps me so engaged. It’s not a preachy series by any means, nor does it set out to send a “after school special” message. These are just the personal meanings I’VE gotten out of it, and thought I’d actually share a little more of my thoughts in this review.

Before I forget, I’d also like to mention that this is the first time in the series where I started looking at the doors as saving graces – things that come around because the kids desperately need them – and not just unfortunate hazards that befall them. They’re not at nefarious as I’d once thought them, and it has given the series just a little more of a spark.

So the world we visited: by all accounts, it should’ve been one of my favorites, and indeed it did a good job introducing the fun (the unicorns, is all I’m sayin’). I liked the world itself and the types of creatures in it. I love what it meant to the main character to be there.

What I didn’t like was the conflict. It felt so thin. So incredibly unbelievable. And considering all the weird stuff that goes on in these worlds that I just accept without a blink, that’s quite the criticism. It felt like an afterthought. Not well-imagined. And almost a throwaway effort. So while the first of the book had a lot of substance and was bordering on another high rating for the series, the second half brought it back down to moderately good. I’ll take it, but I wish there’d been more.

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Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Novella Reviews: Wayward Children 1-3 by Seanan McGuire

Book Info: Every Heart a Doorway (book #1)

Rating: 4/5 stars

I’d been eyeballing this series since a friend recommended it to me a couple of years ago. I’d thought they were full-length novels, but was pleased to discover the series as bite-sized novella chunks. Very satisfying.

This first book could’ve taken a lot of directions. One of my favorite things about it is that I was never quite sure where the author was going with the story. Seanan McGuire is, most prominently, an author I look to for the unconventional. I loved that most of this book took place at a boarding school for these wayward children. School settings are my favorite, and this had enough “learning cool new things” components for it to be a good one. Then the tale took on an unexpected murder mystery, and I found myself completely on board.

Granted, the magic of this first book was more in what it promised in future books rather than just on its own merit. It had a lot of great setup, and the anticipation for what’s to come is why I was left feeling really positively about it.

Book Info: Down Among the Sticks and Bones (book #2)

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

So far, this was my least favorite of the series. While I continued to like the writing voice and overall concept, I had a lot of issues with pacing and plot decisions.

I was very interested in the backstory of these two characters, and appreciate the almost nursery-rhyme presentation of the narrative early on. However, the beginning was a bit long-winded, especially considering readers already knew what was going to happen from the first book.

Then we get to the new realm, and that’s really where my disappointment in how it was executed manifested. First off, the world itself wasn’t very well-realized. There were enough atmospheric details and explanations that my brain could sort of create a picture, but the narrow focus on just immediate characters made it feel like we were walking around in little bubbles. It didn’t seem like a real place with a functioning society. It felt like a big old castle with only three occupants and a town with only two or three folk, until the mob scene drew them out of the forest. Or wherever they were hiding. I’m finding it hard to explain, but essentially, the world-building was really thin, and more there for overall atmosphere creation than anything else.

One of the most compelling things about this series is allowing me to psychoanalyze these very troubled characters and try to figure out what circumstances and trauma cause them to behave the way they do. This opportunity is probably why I’m so tickled with the series so far, because it’s giving my brain a lot of extra food for thought (keeping me engaged). Based on what we know about these characters so far in the series, their behavior at the end of the book did not make a lot of sense to me. Both girls felt wildly out of character, and it bothered me enough that in my Buddy Read for the story, we spent a lot of time discussing what would’ve made more sense to have happen. The biggest dock to my rating was from this unsatisfying inconsistency of character.

However, this is just one facet of the story McGuire is building, so I was still eager to pick up the next book, despite some objections with this one.

Book Info: Beneath the Sugar Sky

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I’d no idea what to expect next. Would the series take all the characters in the first book and use the following novellas to tell their backstories like they did in Down Among the Sticks and Bones? I was okay with that trajectory, but feared I’d miss the boarding school element too much to stay invested. Luckily for me, Book 3 managed to progress the storyline developing at the boarding school while also giving some great backstory tidbits and other world exploration.

It was fantastic.

Or should I say “fantastical” because we got to explore our first nonsense world in this novella.

I, for one, am definitely more at home in the logical worlds, but since the beauty of this installment was more about the characters and the sense of adventure and camaraderie, it didn’t bother me too much (I have a hard time with the ridiculous in books, which is why my stint into Piers Anthony, Pratchett, and Douglass Adams was very, very brief). Overall I love how it progressed the story in multiple worlds and how it started a convergence of realms.

Additionally, Beneath the Sugar Sky had a number of instances where it promoted female body positivity which was integrated naturally, feeling very organic to the character profiles, and 100% freaking fantastic. It also explored the idea that your worth as a person is made up of so many components that aren’t always tangible or visible things, and continually appreciating those things rather than focusing on external appearance and how society indicates you “should” be can be a very powerful shift in mindset. It’s not ignoring the stigmas around you, because that’s nigh impossible in the culture we live in, it’s allowing reality to be what it is and still have a quiet confidence in why you are special. Cora is definitely a character I’ll have my eyes on going forward. Loved.

Overall, this series (so far, books 1-3) has been an absolute highlight to my year, and I can’t wait to explore more. I appreciate that I’m getting much more out of these books than just your basic portal fantasy story. I’ve come away with so much unexpected food for thought, which is incredibly exciting.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes