Logic Reigns and Ruins in Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Sentences were invented so Seanan McGuire could write them.

That much is certain from the first lines of In an Absent Dream, the latest portal story in the Hugo and Nebula award-winning series.

In a house, on a street, in a town ordinary enough in every aspect to cross over its own roots and become remarkable, there lived a girl named Katherine Victoria Lundy. She had a brother, six years older and a little bit wild in the way of boys who could look over their shoulders and see the shadow of a war standing there, its jaws open and hungry. She had a sister, six years younger and a little bit shy in the way of children who had yet to decide whether they would be timid or brave, kind or cruel. She had two parents who loved her and a small ginger cat who purred when she stroked its back, and everything was lovely, and everything was terrible.

McGuire has criss-crossed the waters of fantasy (and science fiction, in the guise of Mira Grant) and spun off more than one finely crafted and well-regarded series. But it is in her Wayward Children novellas—tenderly rendered portraits of children lost and found—that her writing soars and sears most, dripping with fairy-tale enchantment and despair.

Every Heart a Doorway introduced Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children and its pupils, all children who had traveled by various magical means to fantasy realms, and then been unceremoniously returned to the mundane world through their respective rabbit holes. Tumbling after came Down Among the Sticks and Bones, a prequel set in the bleak Moors discovered by twins Jack and Jill, and Beneath the Sugar Sky, which moved the action forward (and sideways and slantways) to the sugary land of Confection.

Now arrives In an Absent Dream, another origin story for a character we’ve met (and, well, un-met): Lundy, the school therapist, who ages ever-so-slowly in reverse. When we first meet her here, before her time aiding Eleanor West’s mission, she is a practical girl, quiet and studious, never one to make a fuss—or make all that many friends. So, it’s a surprise when she finds a doorway in the trunk of a tree and makes the illogical decision of stepping through it.

On the other side she encounters the Goblin Market, a High Logic world (to use the parlance of the Wayward Children continuum) that asks—nay, demands—that “Fair Value” be offered in all transactions—be they mercantile or personal. It’s a perfect fit for Lundy—well, until it isn’t. We’ve seen where and how (gruesomely) Lundy’s adventures in portal land end; what In an Absent Dream provides is the emotional gut punch that accompanies that severing.

In the Goblin Market, Lundy feels at home. She makes a friend in her opposite, the impulsive Moon, and together, they undertake many quests. But never far from Lundy’s mind is the choice she must make: unlike the other portal worlds introduced by this series to date, the Goblin Market allows its visitors to come and go freely until their eighteenth birthdays, at which point, they have the choice to take an oath of fealty and remain, or to be forever banished from its confines.

Lundy visits the Market several times throughout her youth, growing up in fits and starts in that world and her own. The continual push-and-pull she feels between the two realms mirrors the emotional split-screen of adolescence, the tug of war between childhood and the world of adults.

In the Goblin Market, failure to provide “Fair Value” for assistance, support, or service has increasingly disastrous consequences. But what Lundy must grapple with is the “Fair Value” of a life, of her life. She senses the call of home with Moon and this world of logic, but she also feels the tug of responsibility to the family she repeatedly leaves behind. In such a situation, how do you even begin to calculate what is fair?

Just as she has in the previous Wayward Children stories, McGuire packs an impossible amount of emotional resonance into this slim novella, limned with language both magical and melancholic. But this entry, in particular, captures the pristine pleasures and pain of growing up. If the world has ever fallen short of your expectations, you’ll feel for Lundy, and fall for her story.

In an Absent Dream is available January 8.

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So You’ve Decided to Read a Sci-Fi or Fantasy Novella…

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

If the literary novella remains a curiosity, the form remains a mainstay of science fiction and fantasy—and more people seem to be reading them than ever. But what’s a novella anyway?

That’s easy: a novella is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel (but not quite so short as a novelette). Ok, fine: for official, Hugo or Nebula award-nominating purposes, a story is a novella if it’s between 17,500 words and 40,000 words.

This year’s winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the novella category is All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a hugely entertaining story about a self-described murderbot who just wants to be left in peace to watch TV, but the pesky humans it is ostensibly programmed to protect keep making that difficult by putting themselves in mortal danger.

Novellas are all the rage in speculative fiction in recent years (certainly since the founding of Tor.com Publishing, an imprint almost solely devoted to the format), but novellas are hardly new and hip. No, they’re old and hip. For perspective, Animal Farm (30,000 words), A Christmas Carol (28,500 words), and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (25,500 words) are all novellas.

If you’re looking for quick, enriching reads, here’s a selection of SFF novellas from the 1960s onwards—some famous, some less so—that won either won the Nebula, Hugo, or Locus awards (or more than one).

Weyr Search and Dragon Rider, by Anne McCaffrey
Back in the late 1960s, McCaffrey became the first woman to win the Hugo and Nebula awards. First, she won a Hugo in 1968, for Weyr Search; then she won a Nebula the following year for Dragon Rider. Not a bad one-two punch. Both novellas were first published in Analog, and later became part of Dragonflight, the first book in the Dragonriders of Pern series. McCaffrey’s work still ranks with the best of classic SFF, and hey, there are intelligent dragons, so.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by James Tiptree, Jr. 
Like all Tiptree’s work, this science fiction novella is worth reading and rereading. It was first published in the anthology New Dimensions 3, and won the Hugo Award in 1974. A description of the plot sounds eerily prescient in the present day: “It imagines a future completely ruled by corporations, where advertising is illegal, because life is advertising—companies use celebrities and product placement to sell their wares.” It’s available in The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3: Subversive Stories about Sex and Gender.

A Song for Lya, by George R.R. Martin
It might be easy to forget, in these heady days of HBO adaptations and Emmy Awards, that George R.R. Martin actually wrote quite a great many things before he wrote A Game of Thrones. This Hugo Award-winning science fiction novella about two telepaths, Robb and Lyanna, was first published in Analog in 1974; it’s set in the same universe as his other novellas Sandkings and Nightflyers. You can find this story, and many others, in the short story collection Tuf Voyaging. (And yes, the two main characters in this story are definitely named Robb and Lyanna, familiar names for anyone who has read A Song of Ice and Fire.)

Enemy Mine, by Barry B. Longyear
Longyear’s science fiction novella won both a Hugo and a Nebula Award. It was first published in Asimov’s in 1979. In 1985, it was turned into a movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., who play enemy soldiers, one human and one alien, who end up stranded on a planet and eventually have to find a way to co-exist and cooperate in order to survive. While the novella and movie might appear a bit dated today, the fears and hopes this story explores truly resonated in the Cold War er. (After the success of the movie, the story was rewritten and published as a novel.)

Souls, by Joanna Russ
Souls was originally published in F&SF in 1982 and won a Hugo the following year. It’s a science fiction tale set in 12th-century Germany, and tells the story of the abbess Radegunde, and what she did after the Norsemen came and her true identity was revealed. The novella is included in Russ’s short story collection Extraordinary People, which is out of print but well worth seeking out. You’ll likely have an easier time finding her blistering How to Suppress Women’s Writing, or one of her other novels, several of which were recently rereleased in print and digital editions.

The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This novella, about a woman who seeks justice for the murder of her baby, features Miles Vorkosigan and fits into Bujold’s immensely popular Vorkosigan saga, a monumental work of spacefaring science fiction. It won both the Nebula and the Hugo Award in 1990 after being first published in Analog. Later, it was incorporated into the fix-up novel Borders of Infinity. If you want guidance on where to get started reading the Vorkosigan saga, you can check out our beginner’s guide.

Last Summer at Mars Hill, by Elizabeth Hand
Hand’s novella won a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award in 1996, and to quote Publisher’s Weekly, it’s “a tale about spirituality, death and hope set in an artists’ community in New England where strange phantoms with unknowable motives dwell.” It’s included in the short story collection of the same name. If you want to read more from the author, there’s a wealth of her fiction available, including the acclaimed, angular Winterlong trilogy and the Cass Neary series.

Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
Chiang is a revered writer of short SFF,and his best-known story, which won a Nebula Award in 2000, received renewed attention in 2016 after the release of the Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a remarkably faithful cinematic adaptation of the novella. This is a truly mind-bending, heart-wrenching story, about the arrival of aliens on Earth and our attempts to communicate with them. Chiang has said it was partly inspired by the variational principle in physics, and that it’s also an exploration of the nature of free will. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, the novella is well worth reading just for its own sake. (Chiang fans will also want to watch out of Exultation, his second short fiction collection, due out next year; it includes a number of other award-nominated novellas.)

Golden City Far, by Gene Wolfe
Wolfe is one of the giants of the SFF world, and is maybe best known for his Solar cycle, which begins with The Book of the New Sun. This novella, first published in the anthology Flights, is about a high-school student who has recurring dreams of a high fantasy world that begin to spill over into real life. It won a Locus Award in 2005 and can be found in the short story collection Starwater Strains. It’s also available as a podcast at Podcastle.

The Finder, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Finder won a Locus Award for best novella in 2002; it is one of Le Guin’s Earthsea stories. In it, Le Guin takes us to a pivotal moment in Earthsea’s history, the founding of the wizard school on the island of Roke. Like in many of her later stories about Earthsea, Le Guin adds new threads and patterns to her story-weave here, and it’s fascinating to see an older writer interact with their earlier work like this. The Finder is included—and illustrated!—in the definitive new compendium The Books of Earthsea.

And if you want to explore more recent, award-winning titles:

Why do you love novellas?

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