Pomegranates and Lollipops: Rereading Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky

Welcome back to the Wayward Children reread! Today, our Door opens on an  Underworld ruled by the Lord and Lady of the Dead, and on a land of sticky-sweet nonsense.

The later books of the Wayward Children series spread out from Every Heart a Doorway like flares from a star, student’s stories continuing onward from where we met them or flashing back to earlier journeys—or sometimes, this week for example, in more complicated directions. Spoilers ahead for Beneath the Sugar Sky.

Nancy’s roommate Sumi, an unwilling expatriate of Confection, was the first student killed in Every Heart a Doorway. On Earth, that sort of thing generally marks the end of someone’s story. Elsewhere, this isn’t necessarily the case. As Beneath the Sugar Sky opens, new students Cora and Nadya are playing by the pond—rudely interrupted by Sumi’s daughter Rini, who plummets out of nowhere into the water, stark naked, and demands to see her mother. This is confusing to logically-minded people, since Sumi didn’t have any children before she died.

A talk with Eleanor and a lot of yelling about clothing (and lack of same) later, we’ve established that Confection had a prophecy that Sumi would return to overthrow the Queen of Cakes. Reassured by that prophecy, the world went ahead with the future in which she did so, married her beloved candy corn farmer, and had a kid with him. Only now that she’s gone and died in the middle, the Queen has returned to force her iron (cast iron?) rule on the people of Confection, and Rini’s fading, fingers first. You all remember Back to the Future, right? Like that. So she’s come to Earth, using a world-hopping bracelet created by the Fondant Wizard, to try and set things right.

The challenge: Sumi needs to live again, to overthrow the Queen of Cakes and also conceive Rini. Chris—once beloved of Mariposa’s Skeleton Girl, and still possessed of a bone flute that animates skeletons, has an idea. He, Kade, Cora, Nadya, and Rini head out to the cemetery for a spot of grave-robbing. Cora and Nadya are there because Rini fell on them. Kade’s there because he’s the school’s sensible person who can do logistics, and because he’s generally awesome. Rini’s there for obvious reasons.

And Chris is there because, if you can animate skeletons, you don’t need a shovel to rob a grave. He plays a silent tune to dance Sumi out of her grave. Now they have Sumi’s body, or at least part of it; the next item on the shopping list is her soul. An underworld seems like a good place to look. Rini’s bracelet can take people anywhere there’s sugar—and fortunately, Nancy’s Underworld has it mixed with pomegranate juice. Rini bites off a bead, and soon they’re arguing with Persephone about whether they can talk to one of Her beloved statues.

Nancy’s pleased to see them, enough to move from her pedestal and help them find what they’re looking for. Kade asks if she’s happy here. “Always,” she tells him. Her life as a statue may look stultifying to those from quick worlds, but for her it’s “like a dance, done entirely in stillness.” She brings them to a room of newly-arrived ghosts, and sure enough Chris’s flute summons Sumi’s spirit to coalesce around her skeleton. But her image is that of a staid schoolgirl, “Sumi stripped of laughter and nonsense.” There’s still one part missing—Sumi’s shadow, the “wild thing” that made her a creature of nonsense. The Underworld’s not a place for wild things—Sumi’s nonsensical heart will have gone home.

But before they can leave, the Lord of the Dead stops them and demands a trade. If Sumi is to leave, someone else must stay in her place. Promised that doors do open from the Underworld to the Drowned World of Belyyreka, Nadya agrees to stay. The rest of the party goes on, reluctantly, to Confection…

Where they promptly fall in a large body of water—I suppose they’re lucky the bracelet didn’t dump them in the River Styx earlier. Only this “body of water” is actually a body of strawberry rhubarb soda. Chris almost drowns. Cora saves him—I may have neglected to mention earlier that when she’s at home, she’s a well-insulated mermaid, and when she’s on Earth, she’s a champion endurance swimmer (and still well-insulated by a healthy layer of body fat, not appreciated nearly so well there as in the Trenches). Once everyone is properly rescued, they head for the candy corn farm where Rini grew up.

Unfortunately, they get captured by agents of the Queen of Cakes. The Queen doesn’t quite shout “Off with their heads!” but seems as if she might, given enough opportunity. (She did apparently once demand to read the future in Sumi’s broccoli-engorged entrails.) She takes their things and imprisons them in a tower. Chris, separated from his flute, becomes deathly ill. Cora tricks a guard into entering their cell, where they overcome him and take his things. Kade dresses as the guard, and “forces” Cora back into the Queen’s presence. There she reads the queen like a book, claiming that she too thinks a world of sugar is an excellent place to hone one’s dieting skills, and that what Confection really needs is the firm hand of someone who knows what willpower is for. This bit of, well, nonsense, lets her and Kade get close enough to put a sword to the Queen’s throat, demand Chris’s flute, and tie her up in their former cell.

Back on track, the group makes their way to the candy corn farm. Sumi’s beloved sends them on to the Baker (who bakes all the things that Confection is made of). The Baker restores Sumi’s full self, all of Rini’s body parts return, and the proper timeline—to the degree that Confection has one—is reestablished. Sumi goes back to the school, knowing now that she’ll return to Confection in due course.

Sorry (not sorry) if that was a little longer than my usual summary. This is a fun book—I’ve left out half the weird little twists, and don’t think I could have left out more without the nonsense becoming completely incomprehensible.

Directions: Today we have a proper quest, complete with some very personal plot coupons and a brief worlds tour. Beneath the Sugar Sky starts on Earth before giving us a glimpse of exactly what Nancy missed so much in her Underworld, and the Lord and Lady whom she so loves. It’s a logical world defined by law and obedience (Virtuous vs. Wicked is less clear, though the frequency of screams suggested in the first book has always implied Wickedness to me). Then finally, we spend some time in Sumi’s homeland of Confection, a Nonsense world where everything but the people is made of sweets, all born in the oven of the Baker.

Instructions: The Lord of the Dead enforces clear rules of exchange: take someone away, leave someone behind. In Confection, by contrast, “Cake and candy and fudge and gingerbread don’t all follow the same rules, so how can anyone make rules that work for everyone at the same time?” But as Kade points out, some degree of logic underpins the nonsense, allowing the human inhabitants to live comprehensible lives and play out meaningful stories.

Another method of Door control is also revealed here: the Fondant Wizard’s bracelet that allows travel anywhere sugar can be found.

Tribulations: The Queen of Cakes was intended to be Confection’s next baker, but thought making candy all day too self-indulgent, folly in a world already overwhelmed with sugary bounty. Instead of making more of the place, she decided she wanted to control it. This does, admittedly, provide more opportunities for a good villainous monologue than hanging out in a supernaturally powerful kitchen all day.

 

This is another ensemble book, and has several of my favorite characters working and bantering together. Cora is a terrific narrator, still coming to terms with herself and her place in a world where she doesn’t fit, but with a solid sense of self that keeps her going. Kade remains awesome in his steadfast insistence on doing smart, helpful things. He and Chris (also awesome) make perfect foils—Chris with his un-self-conscious cheerful morbidity, every inch the piper of Mariposa, and Kade with his clear-eyed and unromantic perspective on the worlds whose exiles he protects. My single favorite passage in Sugar Sky is the two of them bickering about whether girls are improved by the not-so-bony bits. “My favorite part [about girls], though, is how they have actual structural stability, on account of how they’re not skeletons.” “You don’t choose your dates based on their internal organs, do you? Settle this.” I will seriously read a whole book of Kade and Chris snarking at each other about Compass Studies, whenever McGuire feels like writing it.

The core of this book, though, is bodies, squishy bits and all. Getting Sumi back in her body. How comfortable different characters are in the bodies they’ve got. How comfortable society is with those bodies. We start with Rini, totally unfazed by arriving on Earth naked: “A cake’s a cake, whether or not it’s been frosted,” and she tells her somewhat-more-prudish companions that she’s not ashamed of her vagina, it’s a nice one.

Cora’s relationship with her body is a little more complex. On Earth she learned to be ashamed of her fatness, which earned her ridicule and silent disapproval despite her athleticism. In the Trenches it was recognized as a strength—a fat mermaid can dive more deeply, can handle cold and pressure and hardship—and Cora learned to recognize that strength as well. She despises the returned threat of her peers’ judgment on Earth, and on Confection uses the Queen’s assumptions about her as a weapon. She makes a sharp complement to Nancy—they may have very different body types, but both have developed strength and endurance invisible to their birth cultures.

On the other side of the Door, everyone finds strength. Even the Queen of Cakes, who finds the strength to be evil. Even Kade, whose world rejected him for finding it.

Confection is the first Nonsense world we get to see closely. The characters’ reactions to it are mixed, and so are mine. On the one hand, the very thought of the soda sea makes me shudder—I like many forms of sugar just fine, but would rather be downwind of a smoking skunk than have to take a deep whiff of someone’s coke. So the whole ocean (and I love oceans) has been replaced by creepy acidic vile-smelling beverage, which is a definite downside. On the other hand—the Moors are non-stop drama and lightning bolts, and the Underworld is a place of rigid rules and tight self-control. Some people like that sort of thing, but Confection (once Queen-free) seems like a good place to have a well-fed, quiet life. It’s notably the first and so far only place with a truly functional parental relationship. Rini loves her parents, her parents love her, and they raised her with a solid moral foundation and the strength to quest as needed. Especially given what we’ve seen elsewhere, that’s a hell of an endorsement for a nightmare of a candy-coated wonderland.

Kade isn’t sure, but I suspect Confection is the first Virtuous world we’ve seen as well.

I love Sumi’s father, who’s kind and solid and appreciates the value of being the person who keeps the hearth fires burning for adventurers. His virtues echo those of the world itself, built around a stream of Bakers whose strength is also the strength of hearth and kitchen, who spend their time on Confection finding ways to make a beautiful world even better. Baking is one of those undervalued skills in our own culture: traditionally feminine, assumed easy by those who just grab their brownies from the store, and all the difference between well-fed comfort and companionship, and lonely hunger. Confection is a world built around a central hearth and the smell of fresh bread and cookies. I might stay away from the “water,” but can imagine spending a lot of time kibitzing in the kitchen.

Since quests involve a lot of walking, they also give people a lot of time to talk—which for travelers among the Doors, means a lot of discussion of Compass Theory. Our little fellowship talks about the directions, but also different types of worlds (Mirrors, Fairylands, Lakes…) and to versus from. One distinction among types is the amount of control they have over doors—goblin markets, for example, have a lot of control and may let you go back and forth frequently. The Lady of the Dead describes Mariposa as a Mirror, and I’m still not sure what that means. But my major point of confusion (and I suppose it makes sense to be confused, in the midst of Nonsense) is the minor directions of Rhyme and Reason. My initial guess was that these refer to communication styles—Mariposa, full of music and dance, would be Rhyme; Confection, where dramatic confrontations come down to monologues and pronouncements, would be the more rhetorically-oriented Reason. But Cora’s Trenches are also described as “beautiful Reason,” and we know that mermaids sing.

Any clues?

 

What does a truly fair world look like? In the final installment of this mini-reread, In An Absent Dream gives us Lundy’s story—and a taste of rule-bound freedom at the Goblin Market.

Spoiler policy: Comments open to spoilers for the first three books, but no spoilers for In an Absent Dream until after it comes out.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

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