“You can’t save anyone if you neglect yourself. All you can do is fall slowly with them.”
One day, Katherine Victoria Lundy will be a teacher at Eleanor West’s school for wayward children. One day, she will help teach and guide the children who come back from impossible adventures, and spend every day hoping that their door will return to take them back to their true home. But once, a long time ago, it was Lundy who found an impossible door, one that came back for her again and again. But always, she had to remember the curfew; on her eighteenth birthday, the doors would close forever, and she would have to choose which side of it she would be on. Once, that choice would have been easy, and Lundy would have chosen Moon, the Archivist, and the magic of the Goblin Market without hesitation. But a bargain must always give fair value, and it wouldn’t be a bargain without a cost.
The Wayward Children series began in 2016 with Every Heart a Doorway, in which a series of murders took place at the school, including those of Sumi and Lundy. 2017’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a prequel, recounting Jack and Jill’s trip to the Moors before they landed at the school. Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) was an impossible sequel, in which a dead girl’s unborn daughter arrives at the school looking for her mother, Sumi. In the fourth installment, Seanan McGuire takes us back further still, to Katherine Victoria Lundy’s quiet, 1960s suburban childhood. Friendless by virtue of her father’s being the school principal, Katherine is a self-sufficient girl who “keeps her own company” and finds her solace in books, until one day she looks up from Trixie Belden and the Black Jacket Mystery and finds an impossible door. I am probably not alone in feeling that of all the wayward children we have met so far, Lundy is the most like me, giving this installment a particular resonance.
The Goblin Market is the strictest and most fae-like of the portal worlds McGuire has presented Wayward Children readers with so far. The rules are clearly laid out, and with each trip through the door, Lundy becomes more bound to them. She is slowly growing out of the grace the world allows for children on their first, or even second visit. Above all, she must Be Sure. But if Lundy is well-suited for the Goblin Market, the same cannot be said of her best friend Moon, who was born to it, rather than chosen; it was her mother’s door, and she left her child there. Moon was the first person Lundy met when she came through her door, and that bond will never fade, but Moon only follows the rules because she fears punishment, and whenever Lundy isn’t around, she can’t seem to help herself getting into debt with the Market.
In an Absent Dream is fundamentally about unequal friendships. Differences that seem small and inconsequential when we are children grow with us until they overrun the relationship, and even a shared history can no longer bind us. Lundy keeps paying Moon’s debts, even when she is warned that Moon will one day resent owing her so much, even when it comes at Lundy’s own danger and expense. “No one serves their friends by grinding themselves into dust on the altar of compassion,” but Lundy seems determined to try. She binds herself tightly to those few she chooses, and remains loyal to the bitter, inevitable end. Even more so than Down Among the Sticks and Bones, In an Absent Dream has a tragic sense of inevitability. We know that Lundy will eventually make a bad bargain, and we know the end it will lead her to. But, as ever, it is the journey that provides the fascination.