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.