McGuire Opens A New Door: A Review of ‘IN AN ABSENT DREAM’

There is a simple equation I use when looking for new series to read. Good writers write good books. String a few good books together you have a good series. If a writer has created one good series, they can probably do another. Now of course you have your outliers. There are authors who strike gold one time, try to go write another series, and fail miserably. They then must go and try to squeeze blood from a stone, milking every last letter out of a series already past its prime (staring over in Terry Goodkind’s direction).

But most of the time when a writer has shown they are adept at creating interesting magic systems, imagining compelling characters, and exercising a flair for original twists on familiar tales, that author is going to be able to not just string together books to create a series, they are able to create series after series to create a body of work. We’ve seen this with Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, Piers Anthony, and Illona Andrews among many others. I am happy to add yet another to my list of authors who’s name alone gets me excited: Seanan McGuire. McGuire wrote the intriguing InCryptid series, the outstanding (and on-going) October Daye series, and has now branched out into one of my favorite new series The Wayward Children.

The Wayward Children

If I were to try to explain The Wayward Children in a sentence, I’d say this: it is like if the wardrobe from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, started hanging out with a bad crowd, then got into drinking and experimenting with Grimdarks. The Wayward Children series mixes urban fantasy, fae fantasy, and the age-old ideas of portal books and blends them all into something entirely new. But let’s first deal with the elephant… or rather in this case the mouse in the room.

The Wayward Children is the first series I’ve read that’s entirely made up of novellas. I don’t mind a novella, if it’s a POV for a character in a series I’ve ALREADY been enjoying. Illona Andrews crafted some great novellas for the Kate Daniels series. Jim Butcher has crafted a lifeline to the DresdenVerse via his novellas and short stories (which got so popular he started his “briefcase” series). Even Patrick Routhfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things was masterfully done. All of these were all part of a bigger picture. Those novellas were meant to tide us over until the next main course was written. I normally wouldn’t read a series that was exclusively made up of novellas because the author wouldn’t have the time or space to really develop characters.

In the case of The Wayward Children Series, I was wrong. McGuire brings a quiet intensity to her characters. She makes visually stimulating and complex environments come to life on the page. There are multiple characters that are deeply delved into. Multiple worlds are introduced. Tension and plot and everything you would want packed in a 450-page book is surprisingly condensed into 170 pages. Instead of feeling unfulfilled and hungry, the read is refreshingly satisfying. Like finding a new sushi roll you really enjoy, or the first time you pop a well-crafted amuse-bouche into your mouth. This isn’t a hastily thrown together snack meant to silence wailing toddlers. It is a small meal, but it’s made for adults.

The Latest Bite: In An Absent Dream

This series (so far) is 4 books long, the latest book being In An Absent Dream. In a nutshell, the book is phenomenal. McGuire hits her stride in this book and expands her universe out into new territory without getting lost in the process. We get incredible backstory on Lundy, a prominent character in the first book, while at the same time exploring the world behind Lundy’s doorway. Each of the prominent characters in this series is seemingly exiled on Earth. As children, each of them found a doorway into a world that made more sense for them. Some of these worlds are silly, some of are serious, but all of them follow a specific set of rules (i.e., magic system). The Wayward Children series explains these systems as falling on different points on a compass. But instead of traditional directions such as North, South, East and West, the “directions” are on a range from Nonsense to Logical and Virtue to Wicked.

Each doorway will open to a world that falls somewhere within that range. For example, in the first book, one of the doorways led to a world called the Halls of the Dead that fell on the compass points of Nonsense and Wicked. The positioning of the compass points regulates everything from magical abilities, laws of physics, even flora and fauna. So, it should be of no surprise when you find out that in a “nonsense world” a magic flute can make skeletons dance. Lundy’s doorway went to a world of logic/wicked. As we explore both her world and her reasons for going and coming back, we see that each character is uniquely fitted to their world — they do not find their way to any doorway by mistake. The Goblin Marketplace, (the destination of Lundy’s door) is a world of strict rules which are rigidly enforced. Lundy, a child who craved such order, seemed a perfect fit for such a world.

But, In An Absent Dream doesn’t do perfect fits or happy endings. We already know this. We already are aware that Lundy is on Earth, exiled from her door, and desperately trying to find a way back. This is where supreme authorship comes into play. By already giving us Lundy’s ending in the beginning of The Wayward Children series, McGuire can’t rely upon a cheat twist, or flashy #BoomBoomMichaelBayExplosionsEverywhere conclusion to hook the reader.

Get Ready to be Addicted

We already know the end, so McGuire must rely upon exceptional storytelling to get us through the book. Luckily she is more than up to the task. Seanan McGuire does an excellent job of taking this increasingly complex map and overlaying it with multiple characters and worlds. She does so in a way that makes sense within the confines of the story, while simultaneously making you eager to see more doorways open.

You would think that a series such as this could suffer from pacing issues. My worry about midway through the first book was that, when faced with such complex magic systems, an author with the limited space of a novella might feel pressure to rush through the writing. I was concerned that the limited page count would inevitably force a contrived urgency that may propel McGuire to write a sloppy or incomplete story to quickly get to a conclusion.

Happily, at no point in The Wayward Children series did this happen. McGuire effortlessly navigated around my fears and worries and gave us exciting worlds with intricate and interesting magic systems. In An Absent Dream focuses on a character that we knew very little about and let us look inside a brand new doorway that further expanded this universe. My only negative critique of this book is that by the end, I felt cheated that as a youth I didn’t have my own door to venture into.


Something Similar: Kingdom for Sale by Terry Brooks

Written by guest writer Joseph Harris. You can follow him on his Instagram page.

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  • Joseph Harris is a writer, performance poet and fantasy bookwyrm. Ph.D student in Education at Michigan State University. Knows the difference between Wyverns and Dragons. My wheelhouse is urban & high fantasy, but I'm starting to be seduced by GrimDarks. You can find me online either at the Gram : or arguing with people on facebook @

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