This is my favorite of the Wayward Children series thus far, and it’s not like the first two were slouches. After a stint on the moors in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we now have the chance to return to Miss Eleanor West’s home for Wayward Children and see how everyone is faring after the shocking events of the first book (Every Heart a Doorway).
We get to visit some old friends and new ones: Christopher, from the skeleton-world of Mariposa, makes his appearance, as does Kade of one of the Fairylands. The new faces are Nadya and Cora, both of whom came from watery worlds and both of whom have a wistful, obsessive fondness for the school’s pond.
Which turns out to be for their benefit, since the pond is where Rini makes her explosive appearance, materializing with a splash from the sugar-spun world of Confection. She’s looking for her mother, Sumi, whose disappearance is causing all kinds of sugar-related chaos. The Queen of Cakes is back! Rini is disappearing one bit and bite at a time! Even the great Fondant Wizard doesn’t know what to do—except to send Rini off on a quest to recover Sumi.
One problem: Sumi is dead. She was murdered and mutilated, and she can’t help anyone. But Kade, Christopher, Cora, and Nadya might be able to, if they can tap into the kinds of Nonsense that fuel Rini and her home world.
We also get to learn a little more about the overarching magic (or perhaps philosophy is a better word) of the interconnected worlds and portals. What draws the children, or what the children draw to themselves, is not exactly earth-shattering, but it is a nice elaboration on some of the themes.
The first book was about not belonging–a familiar feeling to those who leave childhood for the uncomfortable, miserable terrain of puberty. The second was an investigation of a particular plane, Jack and Jill’s B-Movie Gothic horrorland, and choosing the ways we belong. This third book is more of a journey, encompassing the width and breadth of several planes—and about fulfillment.
I am so used to the mitigated triumphs of modern novels, the delicate peace that characters assemble from broken homes or extensive mistakes. The only contrast to this is often the deluge of romantic feeling, that characters long separated can finally come together in an explosion of marital bliss. But I see here something I didn’t even know I was missing, something that really made my heart ache: characters who found pure and enduring joy in both place and occupation. The places were theirs, and they belonged; their occupations were intrinsically fulfilling and externally celebrated by those around them, including their mentor/parent figures. Their antagonists were truly wicked or bestial (literally: a sea dragon, in one case).
This isn’t to say that complicated triumphs are not worthy subjects. I appreciate morally complex stories. But they’re like a rich, complex chocolate, something you have to savor and appreciate. Sometimes you want that, but sometimes you just want a dang Cadbury bar all to yourself. (And I’m talking 250g here. Confection might be my kind of place…) There are narratives just as compelling and wonderful as complexity, and McGuire has given us tastes of some here.
This also isn’t to say that finding happiness in the Wayward worlds isn’t full of struggle and suffering. Each character has their own grief to navigate, whether that’s racism or transphobia or fatphobia. McGuire handles all of them with tender but unflinching prose, making sure we know that each child is just as vulnerable as they are strong.
Also, and this is a bit of a spoiler: God (well, a god, but also the god of a world) is a young hijabi from Brooklyn who just wants to make cookies. I’m on board for that universe. Please—pretty please with sugar on top—sign me up.