Hugo 2020 Novellas: In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire

Last time I reviewed Ted Chiang’s novella finalist and that story has an odd dynamic with his also nominated novelette. Based on a plot synopsis the stories are utterly different but there is a conceptual overlap such that reading one causes a re-evaluation of the other. There is a similar dynamic here between McGuire’s novella (a new entry in The Wayward Children series) and her nominated novel Middlegame.

There are some more obvious overlaps, both Middlegame and In an Absent Dream feature a clever friendless girl who doesn’t really understand how lonely she is who finds friendship in magical way. Both characters even escape class to a janitors closet but it isn’t these plot points so much but the sense of an author exploring a set of ideas, in particular the process of bookish children becoming adults and the parallels of escape within literature and literature as escape.

With In an Absent Dream, the main character Lundy finds a door (as is required in the Wayward Children) that leads to the small world of the Goblin Market. The first thing we learn about the market is that it is governed by rules and from there the story is set on a course that we know will end with Lundy breaching the rules in some way leading to a semi-tragic end. That’s not a flaw in a story but rather a way of establishing the gravity of the tale. It has a sense of a morality fable but there is not a moral as such beyond the reality that growing up is painful for children and parent alike.

It is a more complete and consistent story than Middlegame but it was, for me, a less interesting one. It was also hard to experience the story as a thing separate from both Middlegame and the other stories in The Wayward Children series. In that context, In An Absent Dream felt to me like an addition to an exploration of an idea that didn’t add much to what I’d already experienced in the other stories whereas Middlegame opened up new avenues of exploration but with connections to those same ideas of children’s literature (and specifically portal fantasies) as questions about the process of becoming an adult and what we lose or retain on the way.

As always, you really cannot fault McGuire’s mastery of prose. There is an apparent effortlessness to the story telling and the emotional impact of Lundy’s numerous disappearances adds to the tragic melancholy of the story. However, and this may sound odd, I really thing I’d have enjoyed this a lot more without the surrounding connections to the stories that preceded it. Perhaps the very theme of the Goblin Market and its insistence on ‘giving fair value’ makes me doubt whether I, as a reader, gave fair value to the story (note: I’m not doubting whether I gave fair value to the author and publisher 🙂 because I did pay for the book!) by finding myself judging the story on the merits of other stories.

9 thoughts on “Hugo 2020 Novellas: In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire

  1. This was one of my nominees. I found the concepts around the Goblin Market fascinating. I also really liked the fact that Yhaql’f sngure unq orra gb gur Tboyva Znexrg naq rkcybevat ubj gung rssrpgrq gurve gryngvbafuvc.

    I liked finally getting the backstory on Lundy. I’m curious what someone who hasn’t read the other Wayward Children books would make of it.

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    1. Camestros Felapton: [it] felt to me like an addition to an exploration of an idea that didn’t add much to what I’d already experienced in the other stories

      Laura: I’m curious what someone who hasn’t read the other Wayward Children books would make of it.

      Yes, for me this fell into the category of “more of the same”, and as I’m not really into endless permutations of childhood portal fantasies, it doesn’t really stand out for me — but to someone who hasn’t read the other stories in the series, it might well stand out as a much stronger read.

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      1. Yes, I think that’s the essence of the issue I was having with it. I’ve had enough helpings from that buffet and although this additional dish seems very nice I’m not appreciating all its tastiness.

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    2. I’m curious what someone who hasn’t read the other Wayward Children books would make of it.

      Especially since this doesn’t really require any knowledge from the previous novellas.

      That being said … I’m also curious if this hypothetical reviewer even exists given that the book proclaims that it’s part of a series right on the front cover. (I skimmed the front page of Goodreads reviews but all of them had either clearly read the entire series or were too brief to be useful.) Presumably somebody has read it as a stand-alone but somebody that is also clued-in enough to comment interestingly about it?

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  2. Just read this one, and I’ll say this for this series: the even numbered novellas work better if you don’t remember what happens in the odd ones, so the results are surprises. I disliked novella #2 because I knew exactly what was going to happen thanks to the first novella.

    But I didn’t recall Lundy since it’d been a while for me between novellas, and as such, this worked so much better and heartbreakingly.

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