"Beneath the Sugar Sky"

I love Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The central concept is simple and brilliant. Eleanor West runs a home for maladapted children who return from fantasy worlds but yearn to return to those worlds that feel more like home than the real world.

Children go to all sorts of different worlds and have all sorts of adventures. Some worlds are charming, some incoherent, some violent and scary. Each adheres to its own logic and own internal consistency. In this way, McGuire can incorporate fantasy worlds with characteristics from a rich history of portal novels - from Alice in Wonderland to Narnia to the world of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.” (And many, many others.)

In her third book in the series,“Beneath the Sugar Sky,” (following 2016’s “Every Heart a Doorway” and 2017’s “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”) McGuire guides us through an Underworld and a Nonsense World.

The story gets under way when a young girl falls from the sky and lands in the turtle pond at Miss Wests’ School. She identifies herself as Rimi. She has come looking for her Mother, Sumi, a student at the school. Unfortunately, Sumi was murdered back in the first novel.

Rimi’s situation is further complicated by the fact that her Mother has not yet given birth to a child. Rimi comes from Confection, a world of Nonsense, where the usual rules of cause-and-effect are not absolute.

But now that Sumi is dead, Rimi is beginning to fade away - her fingers fading away like Marty McFly’s fingers in the movie, “Back to the Future.” She needs help finding her dead Mother. Sumi may be dead, but she’s not quite gone - not yet anyway. With all these fantasy worlds and their differing rules, there’s still a chance at getting Sumi back.

Fortunately for Rimi, the children she asks for help all have experience going on quests to strange fantasy lands. They agree to help her. But before they can get to Confection, they must first pass through the Halls of the Dead and ask a favor of the Lord of the Dead.

The story is terrific. As in the first two novellas, the joy lies in the details of McGuire’s writing. The conversations between the children are wonderful and the different worlds are realized with intelligence, psychological insight and whimsy.

The book is equally serious, affable and funny. McGwire enjoys playing with the conventions and expectations of fantasy novels. When one of the children boldly claims that there is “Only one way to find out” whether the Lord of the Dead will be upset with them for entering his land, Cora objects. “Why do people always say that?” she wonders. “People only say there’s only one way when they want an excuse to do something incredibly stupid without getting called on it.”

McGwire is a talented, prolific writer who is remarkably consistent. I didn’t notice a drop-off in quality in any of the novellas. In addition to this series, she also writes other novellas and short stories and, under the pseudonym Mira Grant, writes novels.

I don’t know if there are future plans for continuing the Wayward Children series. If she can fit more books in her busy writing schedule, I’ll be happy to read several more installments.