Hugo 2019 Novellas: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

The third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series is a sequel to the first, with one of the murders in the first book having severe repercussions on the magical-portal world connected to the victim. There’s more of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in this story than the last but it’s clear that the interesting premise of the lives of people who once had a magical adventure as a child in a magical land after they return has limited scope.

Nominally Beneath the Sugar Sky continues the core theme but it is less a commentary on portal fantasies and more of a straight portal fantasy. A group of students from the school become embroiled in the fate of a magical land that is based on confectionery, which due to events in the real world is now under the control of an evil queen that needs to be defeated. To do so requires resurrecting a character from the first book, which leads the characters in an adventure into the realms of the dead.

Now McGuire is incapable of telling a bad story and this one has a nice balance of characters and events that kept me nicely diverted while reading it. However, it lacked some of the broader qualities of Every Heart a Doorway or the tragic conflict of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. It’s not a standout story, although well executed. Perhaps I’ve missed some of the nuance or significance in it but having read it and thought about it, I found I had very little to say about it.

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25 thoughts on “Hugo 2019 Novellas: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

  1. I think this one was actually my favorite of the Wayward Children stories thus far. OTOH that’s not really saying much, as I’m not a huge fan of the series as a whole.

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      1. My reaction was pretty much the same: it’s a perfectly fine story, but not exceptional. It’s fifth on my ballot, above Binti. Lucky Peach was more flawed, but was also very new and different, so I ranked it above this one.

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  2. I’m finding the *idea* of this series – a meta-exploration of portal fantasy as a subgenre – much more interesting than the execution. Each installment, including this one, is competent-to-good but doesn’t really grab me.

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    1. Ditto, Mark.
      I particularly hated the bit in the first book where they map all the types of worlds out on some multiversal axis. It’s precisely the kind of blandly rationalized magic system that I hate.

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      1. You mean the bit where they try… and by the end realise the map is flawed? Which is expanded in this one to note other ways it’s wrong.

        It matches the way humans are pattern-creating creatures; we look for a pattern, if there is none we invent one — then discover that bits of reality don’t fit the pattern we made. Some of the theme of these books is people who try to make reality match their patterns, for good (Nancy trying to get back to her world) or ill (Jack and Jill’s parents) or just because people do it (the mapping of the worlds into various axes.)

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      2. I don’t remember the flawed-theory reveal, so obviously it didn’t alter my view of the magic system. I had other reasons I disliked the book, that was just the one that stuck in my mind most.

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      3. The theory belongs to a character who adjusts what they believe about nonsense versus logic (which given flippin’ Alice in Wonderland I would have thought would have been obvious but that’s just me)

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  3. So, this series has been generally my least favorite of McGuire’s works, despite my love of pretty much everything else she writes. And yet I found this novella actually my favorite of the series (not counting the 4th which I haven’t read). Every Heart a Doorway had an interesting premise and characters, but the murder mystery plotline was soooo predictable that it kind of wasted all that setup. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a very solid story…..except we’d already been told what happened for the most part in the first novella, so again it felt like it didn’t add anything.

    This is definitely the most traditional portal fantasy of the series, but it’s the first of the series to have a plot that moves without being predictable and makes good use of the included characters. Whether or not the different types of portal fantasy worlds – nonsense vs logic, etc. – shown is enough to interesting you is I guess what would make you decide whether or not this is worth the nomination. For me, it’s just barely, and it’s fifth on my ballot (Lucky Peach is below this since that just didn’t work for me).

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    1. I’m not a fan of this series either, and I normally like Seanan McGuire’s work (though I don’t care for Mira Grant). Maybe it’s simply because German children’s fantasy is less portal fantasy heavy than English language children’s fantasy, so I’m missing the necessary reference points. I did like the basic idea of a home for children who fell through portals and no longer fit into the real world, but IMO it wasn’t even enough for one novella (a short story or novelette would have sufficed) let alone four.

      Currently, Beneath the Sugar Sky and Lucky Peach are duking it out for the bottom of my Hugo ballot.

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      1. I’m actually very doubtful how portal-fantasy heavy English children’s fantasy is. This is odd: there have been a lot of portal fantasies in the Hugos-and-related-awards recently, which have also been to some extent reflections on the portal fantasy – not only this series but also Summer in Orcus and In Other Lands; clearly for many people portal fantasy is the thing from childhood which left the deepest impression on them. But when you ask for examples, there are really only three that have had a wide impact: Alice, Oz and Narnia. There are a few others – there’s The Phantom Tolbooth, of course; there is. allegedly, The Valley of Song, though only about three people have read it (my mother was one of them, which is how I know of it) – and then there’s The Neverending Story, which isn’t English.

        Most classic children’s fantasy is either wholly this-worldly, like Nesbit and Masefield and Goudge (except TVOS) and most of Garner (Elidor has a portal, but most of the action takes place in our world) and Cooper, or wholly otherworldly, like Tolkien or Alexander. And likewise more recently with Rowling and Colfer and Riordan. Very like adult fantasy, really.

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      2. Random theory: the modern style of Urban Fantasy where there’s a second secret world of magic or supernatural creatures that ordinary people don’t know about, and the MC gets initiated into it as part of the early plot, is the spiritual descendent of formal portal fantasy.

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      3. Re: Andrew M.’s question,
        There is at least some very popular recent portal fantasy for kids, not just the classics. My 10-year-old loves the Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer and the Five Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull, both of which are classic portals. Mull’s Fablehaven is also close to being a portal–sort of a secret pocket universe, I think, though maybe that makes it closer to Harry Potter.

        For the younger set, some of the Magic Treehouse books are time-travel stories, but others are unambiguous portal fantasies where the protagonists travel to faerie land, etc.

        Judging by the amount of time my daughter spends reading and re-reading Land of Stories and Fablehaven, I suspect that they, along with Harry Potter, will be formative books that she looks back on with nostalgia, the way we oldies look back at Narnia.

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      4. Andrew M. notes The Neverending Story, which actually was originally German, as Die unendliche Geschichte. I’ve read the English translation of the book. (My German is far from good enough to read the original, given I haven’t practised since high school.)

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      5. While Oz and Alice and Elidor (and Moon of Gomrath had some of the action taking place in a magical realm) were among the portal fantasy books I loved as a child–the one I went back and checked out of the library again and again for a fews (but which no one else seems to have read) was Knee Deep in Thunder.

        Andrew M: I’m not sure what your definition of wide-impact is, but you’re leaving out a couple of examples which millions of children were very fond of, but were never books. One example that was wildly popular from my own childhood was the live action Saturday morning program, H.R. Pufnstuff (which wound up having a theatrical movie, as well). Less popular (and more derivative) was Lidsville. One could argue Land of the Lost was also a portal fantasy. There have been many other children’s television shows that fall into this category. McGuire herself mentioned, when discussing why she wrote Every Heart a Doorway, the original My Little Pony cartoon series–which was adored by millions of kids about the age of my youngest sister who all wished that they would get whisked off to a magical land of ponies to have adventures like the girls in the cartoon.

        I don’t know how widely distributed any of the shows were internationally, but there were far more kids watching those than reading the Narnia books at the time.

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      6. And even though Weirdstone of Brisingamen doesn’t have a portal as such (unless Cheshire counts…& it might) the impact on the kids afterwards is still relevant (& addressed in Garner’s more recent adult novel)

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      7. Land of the Lost was SF, but yes, definitely portal SF. I loved that show.
        There were several lower-profile TV shows in the same era, including the adult Fantastic Journey (portal in the Bermuda Triangle!).

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  4. I read this last week, and I really do want to jot down a bunch of notes on this one…

    1. I feel like there’s this fundamental disconnect between the series’ themes and its actual stories.
    The first one had these moving themes of unbearable loss; of knowing that your personal paradise exists — but you’ve lost it. But its story is a bog-standard murder mystery and the conclusion is “oh hey actually almost everyone *can* go back to their real home and it’s pretty easy and great”.
    This one’s themes are also really compelling — a repeat of some of “Every Heart A Doorway,” but I think with more focus on the sense of *belonging*, on how different people’s hearts yearn for fundamentally different things, and *finding* those things is beautiful.
    But… that’s all in cosmology and flashbacks; the actual story is a bog-standard FedEx quest.

    2. There were some *really* disturbing notes in this one. Most particularly, the pretty explicit implication that Cora attempted suicide, *thought she had succeeded*, and only discovered she *hadn’t* when she found herself back in reality… HOLY SMOKES, people. That’s one heck of a thing to live(?) through.
    Combined with the statement that “everybody goes to their perfect place after they die,” this is, as noted, *really* disturbing. It feels very much at odds with elements like “generic journey through candyland,” “adventurer teens who cuss,” and “LOL let’s all be cool about genitals.”

    3. Cora feels really invisible as a character. Her personality seems entirely defined by her weight; her being mocked for it; and her longing for her watery paradise. She doesn’t seem to have much character beyond that — no voice or characteristics. She also just doesn’t *do* much during the story; she feels like she’s tagging along on somebody else’s quest.

    So… I didn’t hate it; it was a quick and fun read. But there are so many things that just feel off about it; I didn’t hate it, but it also didn’t work for me.

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    1. Good analysis. I hadn’t picked up on point 2 but yeah, for all that Cora is an interesting addition to the cast she is more of an observer than a protagonist. Point 1, you expressed better how I felt about this — it makes the Wayward Home more of a waiting room before you go back than a place to survive after your loss.

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      1. AND, you just brought this back to me, how they tell Layla “Oh hey, just in case you GET KICKED OUT OF PARADISE–”

        I feel like the books are really inconsistent about whether these shifts between worlds are super rare and significant, vs. whether they’re just a cosmic revolving door.

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