Seanan McGuire is a master at her craft. In her hands, the English language melts and molds to her whim. She twists and twines and turns the words until each sentence carries within it myriad meanings. The Wayward Children series is epic poetry in short prose form, and In an Absent Dream—the fourth book in the series—is no different.
When we first met Lundy in Every Heart a Doorway, she was a child running Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. She was much older than her young years belied, as she was aging backwards due to a curse from her portal world. Like Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of Jack and Jill leading up to Every Heart, In an Absent Dream does the same for Lundy.
Eight-year-old Katherine Victoria Lundy is a quiet, bookish, rule follower, an average girl who is “pretty and patient and practical.” Until one day she finds a door in a mysterious tree with a sign reading “Be sure.” In the beginning she is sure. The Goblin Market is fresh and exhilarating, a world that fits her perfectly. There are rules—and harsh consequences for those who break them—but it’s also a place of freedom and adventure. As long as Lundy has something to give, there is more than enough for her to take.
Contrary to other portal worlds in the series, the Goblin Market allows children to come and go until they turn 18; by then they must decide on which side of the door they want to remain. That decision is final. Lundy loves the Goblin Market, but every time she returns to the real world it gets harder and harder to leave her “real” family behind. Until one day she makes a choice she will regret for the rest of her life.
I felt a lot of kinship with Lundy. As a child, I was also contentedly solitary. If you ever needed to find me, there was a good chance I’d be shoved in a corner somewhere with my head in a book. I had plenty of friends, but they never came over to my house and I rarely went over to theirs. I followed the rules but only to root out the loopholes. (I like knowing where the line is so I know exactly how close I can get to crossing it.) It honestly never occurred to me to outright break the rules, at least not until I became a mercurial and angsty teenager. Breaking the rules was for bad girls and I wasn’t a bad girl—bad girls got attention and attention meant I couldn’t do what I wanted when I wanted. Good girls were trusted enough to be left alone, and alone was (and still is) my ideal state.
I think if I had found a door in a tree like Lundy did, I probably would’ve gone through, too. It was too unexpected and inexplicable to not go through. But I was a more cautious child than Lundy. Before making any decisions, I would’ve asked clarifying questions and weighed my options. But I also wouldn’t have wanted to stay. For Lundy, life on this side of the tree didn’t offer what she thought she wanted. Yet perhaps life on the other side wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, either.
In my review of the first three books, I wrote about how the Wayward Children series is all about home. Losing it, finding it, and making the best out of the one you’re stuck with. For the kids living with Eleanor West, the school is their home whether they like it or not. Sometimes it feels like a temporary refuge until they can find their way back to their portal world or learn to accept the real world. But it’s still home.
Before the school, Lundy finds herself trapped between two homes. When she’s young, her family feels more like a waystation than a place she wants to stay. The Goblin Market gives her everything they don’t: companionship, compassion, closeness, and just a little bit of chaos. As she matures, she begins to see between the lines of the three rules of the Goblin Market—“Ask for nothing; Names have power; Always give fair value.”—and how impossible those rules are to follow to the letter.
Both homes have glaring imperfections and enticing enchantments. Both have people who care for her and need her more than she needs them. Both offer her a life she’s not sure she wants. And isn’t that what growing up is all about? Learning the hard way that life isn’t fair and rules can be broken and home isn’t always where the heart is.
Like the rest of the series, In an Absent Dream will etch itself into your bones. From first word to last, I was lost in a sea of deep understanding, desperate heartache, and vivid storytelling. I longed, I loved, and I lost, but no matter what I could not tear my eyes from the page. Whether you call yourself a fantasy fan or not, Wayward Children is a series you absolutely must read.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.