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Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire3.5 stars
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Seanan McGuire has written a number of long-running fantasy series by this point in her career, yet probably none of them is as widely loved as her Wayward Children novellas for Publishing. This is most likely due to the way the Wayward Children stories tap directly into so many readers’ inner wayward child. Face it, many folks who gravitate to SFF have grown up feeling like we never fit into society’s mainstream, like there’s something about the mundane world that we either don’t get, or, more to the point, that doesn’t get us. A school for misfits who long for a fantasy world they can call their own is a concept practically tailor made to hit most of SFF fandom right where it lives.

As stories, I’ve found them extremely uneven, though even in their most awkward moments, I have to admit there’s something vital McGuire is tapping into. Beneath the Sugar Sky isn’t the best of these books so far, but it does do one thing better than any of them have done before. It’s finally captured the theme of acceptance, as, for the very first time, we see a group of students from Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children going to great lengths and enduring personal sacrifice to help one of their own. Sure, there was an attempt at that, trying to work its way into some coherent form throughout the clumsy murder investigation plot of Every Heart a Doorway. But in Beneath the Sugar Sky, the characters finally feel like real friends. They develop a bond that rings true.

We’re reintroduced to some characters from Every Heart, including Kade, who is now helping Eleanor to manage the school, and Christopher, the boy with the bone flute who longs to be reunited with the Skeleton Girl. New student Cora has been ejected from a watery world called the Trenches, where her life as a mermaid more than made up for the indignities heaped on her in the mundane world for being so overweight. She is quickly befriended by Nadya, another student from a watery fairyland, Belyyreka, who has been waiting longer than most of Eleanor’s students for her door to open again. It’s almost been long enough for Nadya that there’s a very real likelihood it may never open.

Everyone’s routine school day is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a young girl named Rini with candy corn eyes, who literally falls out of the sky. Rini claims, impossibly, to be the daughter of Sumi, one of the students who met a bloody end in Every Heart a Doorway. It turns out that Rini and Sumi’s world is an actual candyland called Confection, a Nonsense world which operates under its own anti-logical no-rule rules and which is currently under the despotic rule of the Queen of Cakes. Rini needs to restore Sumi to life, not just to deal with the Queen, but so that Rini herself can be born. Most surprisingly, Rini has been given the means to create her own doors in her pursuit of this quest. Kade, Christopher, Cora and Nadya promptly join Rini in her efforts to recover her mother’s mortal as well as magical remains.

Few of these plot complications make sense when you try to flowchart them out in sequence, but that’s kind of the whole point. Confection is a Nonsense world, whereas other worlds run under strict Logic. So in essence, McGuire has given herself wiggle room to get away with some messy plotting, in order to let us focus our attention more on the characters and the extraordinary fantasy lands they inhabit. Happily, that’s all worth it. Confection is delightful, where houses and castles are real gingerbread, and even the dirt under your feet is made of sugar lumps and cookie crumbs. (Although the Queen of Cakes herself has got to be the most unthreatening and ineffectual excuse for a villain I’ve ever seen.) We get to see some other worlds as well, and this additional immersion helps build upon the lore that the series has been working to establish.

I mentioned that this was an uneven and awkward series, and that holds true here. For all its charm and heartfelt expressions of the themes of friendship and learning to accept not only the differences in others, but those in yourself, I can’t help thinking that some of the more adult content McGuire throws in is preventing this series from hitting its ideal target audience. When Rini first shows up at the school, she’s stark naked and we get quite a few vagina jokes, and it’s witty, I suppose. But without that sort of thing, as well as the F-bombs and the graphic violence we saw before in Every Heart a Doorway, the Wayward Children series could be absolute perfection as middle grade fantasy. And who needs to hear “you’re okay and you matter” more than kids who are right at that cusp of life, where they’re not sure of fitting in? Where they’re encountering the social hierarchies and the bullying of their schoolmates? Where they’re constantly being hammered with rigid and unforgiving standards of what’s acceptable and what isn’t? Certainly, adults need reinforcement of these messages as well. But younger kids are navigating a very unsafe world with a much more limited toolkit, and, yes, stories have always been part of our growing-up toolkit.

Ultimately, your attachment to this series will be directly proportional to how closely you identify, personally, with any one of the characters, whether it’s Kade or Nancy or Cora or just the very idea that somewhere there’s a place where you can be who you were meant to be, without judgment. If only all the Wayward Children could find their fairylands. Then life would be cake.