Book review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

It is exceedingly rare for me to miss my tram stop because I’m so engrossed in a book.  This little gem managed it.  I was absolutely in love with this adult fairy tale.  It features a highly original story, likable characters and very compelling worldbuilding.  And all of it is measured out in small but dense quantities, to force the book into a small, manageable package that can be enjoyed over a long evening.  Or a few tram rides, at least one of which could turn out to be unexpectedly long.

If you never asked yourself what happens to all the children who return from adventures in fantasy worlds, you are not alone.  Don’t worry, McGuire asks this question for you.  In addition to Dorothy and Alice, who had their relatively short adventures in Oz and Wonderland, respectively, we have the children who entered Narnia and grew to adulthood, only to return back as kids, but with their memories intact.  That must have left quite a mark on a kid’s psyche…  There are many more examples of children (and it’s always children) traveling to fantastical worlds and back.  Many of them recover and become normal, mundane adults.  But a fraction of them longs to go back to their world.  For them, there is a special school where they can wait for another door to their fantastical world to open.

One day, the kids at the school encounter a newly arrived denizen of one of such worlds.  She is looking for her mother, who had been murdered at the school before her daughter was even conceived.  A few of the children leave for an adventure across several worlds to find the remains of the dead girl, and put them back together to form a human being again.  They must travel through a world of the dead, all the way to a sugar world where everything is made of sweets.  Over the course of their travels they lose one of their number, are captured by an evil queen, and almost lose their minds at the amount of nonsense they have to witness.

The book reads like an older work by Neil Gaiman.  The characters may be quirky, but they are overflowing with humanity.  All of them have their flaws, but they just make them more relatable.  I grew to like all of them and care for most of them, which made it so difficult to put the book down.  However, the book introduces a very dark note at the end.  It is subtle, easy to miss, but once you notice it, it will burrow into your thoughts and fester there for a long time after you finished this work.  To me, this was like a piece of spice thrown into a sweet cake: disharmonious, but making the work infinitely more interesting.

The worldbuilding is simply superb.  The author didn’t ponder the initial question too much.  She took a world, threw in one little question and ran with it.  McGuire ended up inventing an entire universe of potential worlds, including a working idea of how different world interact with each other.  Two of the worlds are described in such a great detail that I could fully visualize them.  I would be shocked if the author didn’t already sell the option for a movie or TV series.  The storyline fits perfectly into the worlds through which the protagonists travel.  Whether it is the land of the dead, where the story seems to be dull and straightforward, or the nonsensical adventures in the sugar world, I felt I was right there with the characters.

I really have nothing negative to say about Sugar Sky.  It was one of the most endearing short books I’ve ever read.  The original premise spiked my interest, and before I knew it I was so emotionally invested in the protagonists that I didn’t want to put the book down.  Their adventures are some of the most inventive I’ve read in a long time.  I can highly recommend this story to anyone who grew to like adult fairy tales similar to Coraline or Stardust.

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