Welcome to a world of talking trees and sarcastic owls, of dangerous mermaids and captivating queens…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Along the Saltwise Sea, a companion book to Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame and the sequel to Over the Woodward Wall. Writing as A. Deborah Baker, McGuire takes our heroes Avery and Zib (and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl) on a high seas adventure, with pirates and queens and all the dangers of the deep as they continue their journey through the Up-and-Under on their quest for the road that will lead them home. Along the Saltwise Sea publishes October 12th with Tordotcom.
After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and making their way across the forest, Avery and Zib found themselves acquiring some extraordinary friends in their journey through the Up-and-Under.
After staying the night, uninvited, at a pirate queen’s cottage in the woods, the companions find themselves accountable to its owner, and reluctantly agree to work off their debt as her ship sets sail, bound for lands unknown. But the queen and her crew are not the only ones on board, and the monsters at sea aren’t all underwater.
The friends will need to navigate the stormy seas of obligation and honor on their continuing journey along the improbable road.
Writing as A. Deborah Baker, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes our heroes Avery and Zib (and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl) on a high seas adventure, with pirates and queens and all the dangers of the deep as they continue their journey through the Up-and-Under on their quest for the road that will lead them home…
Along the Improbable Road
Once, in a time that was earlier than it is now and later than it might have been, later than the great ages of heroes and monsters, when quests were taught in school alongside the subjects we still have today, literature and swordsmanship, arithmetic and alchemy, science and the art of finding and fleeing from monsters, there were two children who had lived in the same ordinary town since the day that they were born. They had lived soft, swift, utterly ordinary lives, days blending into nights without any hint of the untidy impossible lurking around the edges, and their parents had looked at them and dreamed wholly ordinary futures devoid of magic or monsters or other complications.
These two children had lived their entire lives on the same ordinary street, but as their parents were not friends—would, in fact, have recoiled from the thought of friendship that crossed class and societal lines with such flagrant disregard for keeping to one’s own kind—and as they went to different schools, on opposite sides of their ordinary town, where they made the kind of friends their parents would approve of, they had never met one another, nor even so much as said hello in the public square. Avery was far too stuffy and preoccupied with neatness to be a good companion to Zib, who was in many ways what would happen if a large bonfire were somehow to be convinced to stitch itself into the skin of a little girl and go running wild across the fields of summer.
So Avery Alexander Grey and Hepzibah Laurel Jones had grown up, day by day and year by year, blissfully unaware that the person who would be the best of all their life’s many friends, the person who would someday unlock the doorways to adventure, was less than a mile away that whole time. And then one day, one of the large pipes which carried water to the ordinary town took it upon itself to burst in the earth, causing an artificial flood and quite blocking the route that Avery ordinarily took to school. It was the sort of inconvenience that could have happened anywhere in the world, but which had, until recently, mostly left their ordinary little town alone. Adventure was against the civic bylaws, and best avoided, after all.
Avery’s parents had raised him to be precise and rule-following, efficient and collected. He was a young boy who already looked well on his way to growing up to be a mortician, or perhaps a lawyer, if he could somehow be swayed to such a potentially frivolous position. He woke in the morning with hair that already seemed to have been combed into place, as if even the thought of untidiness were somehow worse than any other possible transgression. So when he saw that his route to school had been rendered impassable, he didn’t return home, which would have involved his parents in his problems; he began looking for another way to get where he was going.
In contrast, Zib had been raised to view the world as a field to be frolicked through, as a forest of trees intended to be climbed. She had never once been told to be careful or slow down by any of the adults who mattered, not her parents, not her grandparents. Those commandments were frequently shouted by her teachers, but as she had been told they didn’t count in the grand scheme of her own development, which included school only because her parents worked and couldn’t watch her all day, and someone had to teach her how to spell and do her sums and all the other things she would need to know in order to be a great explorer when she grew up, she felt free to ignore them. When she found her way to school had been interrupted by a great gas explosion below the street, she saw it, not as an impediment, but as an opportunity for adventure, a chance to strike out on her own without technically disobeying the adults whose instructions ruled her days.
So it was that Avery and Zib, two children who had never, in the course of all their ordinary days, had the opportunity to meet, found themselves standing side by side on an unfamiliar stretch of sidewalk, looking in confusion at a wall that shouldn’t have existed. It was at the end of the block, and there should have been another block ahead of them, and then another block, ordinary and predictable and marching one by one into the linear, expected future. Instead, the wall patiently persisted, each rough granite brick resting solidly upon the one below it, save for the bricks at the very base, which rested solidly upon the ground. Lichen and moss grew in patches on the stone, vital and somehow intrusive, like it had no business in a place as civilized as their hometown. Avery, who was rather more interested in carefully tended and cultivated gardens than Zib was, had never seen that sort of lichen growing anywhere in town, and Zib, who was rather more interested in woods and fields and wild places than Avery was, had never seen that sort of moss growing anywhere in the woods across from her house.
The wall did not belong there, of that there was no question; but the wall was unquestionably in front of them, solid and unyielding and right in the way of where they were meant to be walking. It was surrounded by blooming wildflowers. They poked out of the earth at its base, thriving where pavement should have blocked them from growing in the first place. They were very pretty flowers, and Zib thought her parents would have approved of them, even as she couldn’t recognize them from any of the fields she knew. Like the rest of the wall, they were strange, and while she was a girl who normally favored strange things, they made her somehow uncomfortable, as if her failure to know and name them would come back to hurt her in the future.
Avery didn’t recognize the flowers, either, but as they were not roses or daffodils or anything else tame and hence desirable, his failure to recognize them didn’t bother him in the slightest. He assumed they were wild things of little value, and went back to staring at the stone, as if he could somehow will it to disappear. He had been here before, hundreds of times, and there had never been a wall between him and his destination. This one had no business where it was; it needed to go and be inexplicable elsewhere.
The wall, which must have known how to move in order to appear unbidden on their street, did nothing to yield or fade away. It continued to stand, as sturdy and implacable as if it had always been there, as if the town had grown up around it.
The two children, who were not yet friends, who did not yet even know each other’s names, stood with their eyes on the wall and their minds whirling, hearts pounding in their chests.
Avery looked upon the wall and saw an offense, a distortion of the way the world was meant to be. If he had been asked, he would have said the wall was mocking him, something that shouldn’t have been but was insisting on existing all the same.
Zib looked upon the wall and saw an opportunity, an adventure getting ready to begin and sweep her into the big and glorious future that she had always known was waiting for her. If she had been asked, she would have said the wall was beckoning her, making promises she was more than eager to believe.
Even the two children would have agreed that it was only natural that Zib was the first to begin to climb. She was wearing a skirt, mainly to quiet the protests of her teachers, who were forever asking if she didn’t feel awkward and boyish when she wore trousers to school. As if there could be anything awkward about clothes that were intended for the climbing of trees! And if wearing trousers could make a girl into a boy, she supposed she’d never have been born, since her mother preferred trousers over everything else there was. The hem of her skirt had been patched and mended until it was more thread and knot than fabric. It bore the marks of much hard use. Her shoes were scuffed and her heels were worn and she simply looked like the sort of girl who would be happier going over an unfamiliar wall than standing placidly in front of it, an assumption that was well supported by the smile on her face as she climbed.
Avery did not have any mended tears in his perfectly pressed trousers, or on the cuffs of his button-down shirt. His shoes were perfectly shining, with scuff-free toes, as if he had only taken them out of the box this morning. Even his hair was combed like he was heading for a funeral. Had someone asked Zib in that moment whether he would climb the same wall she did, she would have replied that no, of course he wouldn’t; whatever adventure was waiting on the other side of the wall, it was hers and hers alone.
She would have been terribly wrong. But no one can see the future clearly, not even the oracles with their crystal balls or the sea witches with their paper-chain tides, and so when she began to climb, he followed, unwilling to be left alone with the impossible.
When they reached the top of the wall, they found that there was no ordinary town on the other side; what should have been another ordinary street was only forest, stretching out for as far as the eye could see. They were both familiar with the tamer, more workaday wood. There were woods behind their houses, dark and tangled and filled with wild mysteries, but still somehow smaller and more domesticated than forest. This, though, this was forest. This was growth that had never known a woodsman, never feared an axe. These were trees that seemed to aspire toward tangling the sun in their branches and burning away to ash for the sheer delight of it all. Their branches rustled. Their leaves fluttered in a wind that was older, and colder than anything that had ever blown through the ordinary town where the children had lived their lives so far.
Still at the top of the wall, the children turned and looked back the way they had come, and when they saw that their homes—their homes, and with them, their parents, their beds, and everything they had ever known—were gone, they paused, both of them united for the first time. Then Zib toppled, end over end, onto the far side of the wall, and Avery climbed gingerly down after her, both of them committed by a combination of gravity and impossibility to the adventure that was ahead of them.
Ah, but all this is the beginning, and if we recount the entire story as it has been from the start, we will be here forever, never gaining ground, never going back to where we belong, victims and travelers on our own improbable road! That would not be the worst thing that has ever happened, for we would not be cold, or hungry, or wet, or lost as it was happening, but it is better to move forward, always, and we must be hurrying along. Hold fast, children, for things will happen quickly now.
In the forest on the other side of the wall, Avery and Zib found a world that was nothing like the one they had known all their lives so far. They found owls that could speak, and girls who burst into murders of crows, black wings beating against the sky. They found kings and queens, allies and enemies, and most of all, they found each other.
It can be easy, in this world, in any ordinary world, to walk through life assuming that what you already have is all that is worth having; that there are neither secrets nor mysteries important enough to be worth following onto a different path. But Avery and Zib learned, very quickly, that there were no mysteries worth the risk of losing their best and fastest friends: each other. For while they would come to care deeply for many of the people they met along their journey, for Avery, it would always be Zib, and for Zib, it would always be Avery. They were an alphabet unto themselves, A leading inexorably to Z, and they needed to hold fast to be completed.
But first: over the wall! Into the Up-and-Under, which had its own rules and its own laws and its own way of doing things, each one stranger and more perplexing than the last! They found themselves in the Forest of Borders to begin with, a strange place which edged upon every land within the Up-and-Under, although it could not be used to travel between them, and which seemed to take a certain smug pleasure in collecting travelers and dropping them into places they were ill equipped to survive, with their ideas of how the world worked and what “logic” meant. There they met the first of three owls, the great blue-feathered Meadowsweet, who started them upon the path to Quartz, who was a royal gnome, which is something like a man and something like a boulder and something like nothing either child had ever seen before.
It was Quartz who told the children that to return home, they would need to follow the improbable road until it led them to the Queen of Wands. But the improbable road was nothing so pedestrian as a path, nor so timid as a thoroughfare. It was not available to every casual Sunday stroller, did not appear for those who simply wished to go berry-picking at the forest’s edge. It was a road with ideas and opinions of its own, and as such, could take time to coax out of hiding. It was also their only way to reach the Impossible City, where the Queen of Wands kept her court, and where other worlds could be easily accessed. Without the improbable road, they would have no adventure; they would simply have the long and painful process of learning to be citizens of a strange new land.
Upon finding the road, they lost Quartz, who was a creature of borders, and could not follow. They lost their footing in a mudslide, and found the first of their permanent allies on the other side: a girl in a short black dress made of crow’s feathers, who had traded her name for a murder’s wings, and who they would come to know as the Crow Girl. She told them they had left the lands of the King of Coins for the principality of the Queen of Swords, and because they had no way of knowing whether she told the truth or lied, they believed her. Believing can be easier than not believing, when there is nothing in the air to indicate a lie, and the Crow Girl was not lying, for lying took more imagination than a murder of crows bound in the body of a girl could carry on their soft black wings.
But onward! Ever onward! For a story already in progress must, by its very nature, continue to move forward, even as those who have just arrived at the theater are shrugging off their coats and searching for their seats. In the company of the Crow Girl, they traveled along the improbable road, and met the Bumble Bear, who had not been born a monster, but who had become one in the service of the Queen of Swords, who was often crueler than she had the need to be. He took the shine from Avery’s shoes as a toll for their passage, and if Zib didn’t understand the importance of that moment, Avery did, and would mourn it all the rest of his days.
The children discovered two treasures: a skeleton key that would allow them to bypass the protectorate of the King of Cups, and the flavor fruit, a wonderful thing created by the Queen of Wands when she had to give up her place as maiden of the summer and take up the mantle of the Impossible City. Soon they met Broom, next of the great owls, who warned them to be careful of their choices and to stay on the road. Heeding neither of these warnings, Avery chose to leave Zib, and Zib chose to leave the road, and they found themselves in possession of a lock for their key, given to Zib by the impetuous Queen of Swords. The lock opened onto a shortcut gone wrong, which dropped them, not into the safe fields of the Queen of Wands, but into the frozen wastes of the King of Cups.
There they met Niamh, a drowned girl from a city locked deep below the ice, who had become separated from her people when the winter arrived, and who wandered seeking only to avoid the King and Page until she could go home again, if that day ever arrived. Niamh offered what aid she could before the Page of Frozen Waters interfered. Zib fell from the high, frozen cliffs and was lost, or would have been, had the last of the great owls, Oak, not come and carried Zib away. His intention was to free her, but the Page of Frozen Waters appeared again, presenting Zib as a great treasure to the King of Cups. He caged her, and as feathers swelled beneath her breastbone and her limbs ached to burst into crows, Avery and the Crow Girl sought to find her.
People who believe they have a right to power will always find ways of making monsters from those they perceive as weaker than themselves. There is not always malice in this act, but that does not make it innocent, or forgivable. It is still betrayal, however kindly it is proposed, and had Zib been a little less fortunate in her friends, had Avery been a little less clever or the Crow Girl a little less brave, she would have been lost forever.
The riverbeds are lined with the bones of children whose adventures ended too soon, done in by the words “a little less,” which are always uttered by those who see anyone unafraid of their own choices as too wild, too rambunctious, too much.
Avery and the Crow Girl released Zib from her confinement, and the three fled the King and Page, taking refuge with the great owls, who confirmed something the Crow Girl had told them by mistake: that the Queen of Wands had disappeared, and without her, the Up-and-Under was in great danger, for balance cannot be maintained when an entire season has stepped out of sight. They could not enter the Impossible City with Niamh, for a drowned girl is an all-too-possible thing, and the City did not want her for its own.
Avery and Zib were both new, for different reasons, to the feeling of having friends, but even so, both of them understood leaving a friend behind was a difficult thing to forgive. So they knew the Impossible City was not for them. They would take her with them on their journey to find the Queen of Wands, who must need finding, for she was missing, after all.
And so this is where, after so much reminding of what has come before, we enter the story, which is already in progress, and has been in progress for a long, long time. Two children, both a little muddy and unkempt, but one with clothing that is still untorn, still largely perfectly pressed, and the other with a mended skirt and hair so wide and wild it looks as if it hungers to consume the entire world, walk down a road of glittering, glistening, improbable bricks, alongside a taller girl with feathers barely contained beneath the surface of her skin and another near their own age who leaves a trail of dampness behind her as she walks. They are on their way to something glorious.
They don’t yet know what it is. Let us follow them, and be there when they find out.
Excerpted from Along the Saltwise Sea, copyright 2021 by A. Deborah Baker.