Book review: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

The fifth book in the Wayward Children delivers more easy reading, simple plot and amazing worldbuilding.  Who cares that the internal logic is broken, as long as the readers can experience one of the most inventive fantasy worlds of the recent years?  This book delivers the latter, and I am completely content with it.  I’ve had a fun filled long night exploring the land of the Moors.

The School for Wayward Children hosts kids who found their way into weird fantasy worlds, experienced strange adventures, became heroes or perhaps villains there, before being unceremoniously dumped back into our world.  Years or decades of adventure in their own worlds had profound effect on their psyche, and now these children cannot adjust back to the real world.  They end up at the School.  Two of such kids are the twins Jack and Jill, who ended up in the horror-like Moors.

Jack already murdered Jill once, and then disappeared with her body to the Moors.  Now she is back, in Jill’s body.  It turns out that resurrecting someone over in their world isn’t all that difficult, and other weird things may be just as simple.  In this case, Jack apprenticed herself to a mad scientist, while Jill became a vampire’s protégé.  Jill and her master killed the scientist and Jill swapped her body with Jack.  Jack, suffering from OCD, cannot abide to stay in a body as filthy as Jill’s, and so she enlists the help of a few fellow students to go retrieve her mentor’s body and defeat Jill to get her body back.

The group returns to the Moors, where they immediately enlist the help of Lovecraftian elder gods of the ocean and their people, and storm the vampire’s castle.  A short battle ensues, at the end of which Jack kills Jill again and forces the vampire to giver her mentor’s severed head back.  The party leaves her as she tries to resurrect the mad scientist, back in her old body and content with becoming one of the world’s monsters.

The story is very straight-forward and exceedingly simple.  It doesn’t even go through the entire hero’s journey, but that’s something that’s became commonplace with serialized novellas, like this series or Murderbot by Martha Wells.  Unfortunately, the story also includes a large logical hole, which is impossible to overlook: Jack doesn’t need her former classmates to defeat the vampire lord and Jill.  She does everything by herself; the presence of others just puts them into danger and actually inconveniences Jack.

I assume that adding the others was a way to develop their characters further.  After all, they are still at the School, waiting for their doors to open, to lead them back to the worlds they left behind, so they’ll feature in the future installments of the series.  Unfortunately, most characters come across as extremely one-dimensional, with no development.  The only exception is Sumi, a seemingly carefree spirit who happily bounces around, is overly talkative and just as sweet as the confectionery world she used to live in.  Under that appearance, however, lies an extremely sharp and pragmatic mind.  She has great observation powers and insights, and she doesn’t let her sentiment go against logic.  She can coolly calculate when one of her friends needs to die.  Even though I couldn’t help myself but to see an author’s self-insert here, I still found Sumi utterly fascinating.  She carried the book for me like no other character could.

The biggest strength of the book lies in the immersive worldbuilding.  This time it’s the Moors, and they are presented as something from old horror movies.  The vampire lord lives in a castle, while the mad scientist resides in an oversized windmill.  A blood-red moon, much larger than ours, is hanging in the sky.  The nearby village peasants are frequent victims of one evil or another, but they learned to live with it and are resigned to their role in the world.  There is even a complex political structure in this world, and violating the established order is one of the crucial plot points.  All this is very vividly described, to the point where I felt like I was inside this world with the children.

The environmental description is the focus of this book, as neither the straight-forward story, nor the plain characters stand in its way.  I think it’s for the best.  The visuals pulled me in, and the characters’ quest simply dragged me along to experience more of the Moors’ weird beauty, as if I were a tourist.  In this regard, Come Tumbling Down is a very enjoyable, relaxing read.  At a time when half of my reading pile of fantasy books is full of anger and the other half is way too serious and depressing, it’s nice to find something as untroubled as this title.  I certainly enjoy the series and will continue reading the next installments.

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