Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third instalment in Seanan McGuire’s urban, portal fantasy series, Wayward Children. After positively devouring Down Among the Sticks and Bones, I couldn’t wait to snag the next volume. While I didn’t love every ounce of it the way that I did its predecessor, I still enjoyed it immensely and appreciated the excellent representation is has of a fat character and a trans male character, amongst other things.
Beneath the Sugar Sky picks up after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, making it a direct sequel of sorts. When a girl falls out of the sky, searching for someone very important to her, it triggers a plethora of events that will take an unusual group of friends on one hell of a unique and nonsensical adventure!
I would like to mention right from the start that you do not have to read book two—Down Among the Sticks and Bones—prior to reading this; just the first instalment. Nothing from the previous novel is referenced to or associated with in Beneath the Sugar Sky. It’s one of the main things that I liked about it, to be honest. I feel like it provides the series with a level of versatility that you won’t find in other fantasy narratives that take place over multiple additions.
Aside from that, Beneath the Sugar Sky is rather extraordinary in various ways, which includes the brilliant representation of various diverse peoples, phenomenal world-building, hilariously genuine yet heart-felt interactions between the cast, and some difficult revelations of the past.
The world-building for it is so beautiful and lush with a honied aura quite akin to the setting and atmosphere of Wreck-It Ralph (Disney film). On more than one occasion, I found myself craving cookies and cake and sweet drinks simply from reading about them. However, it also made me a bit sick to my stomach as well as it can become overwhelming after a time. The imaginative way that this specific realm is built is delightfully separate from the other two realms. When the construction of the world is revealed, I was so pleasantly surprised to see the face of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman! That part made my Islamic heart swell with appreciation.
Speaking of diversity, McGuire’s series has that shit down so incredibly well. The depth of the various sorts of representation that has been presented across all three novels so far has been rather impressive, and it is the biggest and most charming characteristic, at least for me. Book one had a female character that was asexual and aromantic. Book two had a Queer character and a character with a severe phobia for germs, not to mention the rep of what happens to kids that are psychologically abused and oppressed. Book three has a fat character and a trans male character, plus some minor rep of others. Each person’s identity is never used as a plot mechanic. It’s never fetishized or sexualised, appropriated or treated offensively. They are all portrayed as normal, individuals who just so happen to have some distinctive differences. They don’t make one person inferior or superior to another, and I fucking love it.
Cora is a fat girl and as such she was treated so poorly; not just by her classmates, by adults alike. To see the effect that it had on her opinion of herself and her relationship with food was mind-blowing. I was a chubby kid, and I was hairy too because my parents wouldn’t let me shave for cultural purposes until I was old enough. Kids were fucking assholes to me, and so were most of my teachers. I did everything I could to lose weight. I was an athlete, I ate healthy foods (my mom was strict about nutrition), but in the end it was entirely a genetic thing. Cora is quite similar in that regard. Even though she has mental and emotional struggles that make living in the “normal” realm challenging for her, she does it. She has an inner strength that is astounding. Cora really puts the act of fat-shaming, related stereotypes, and the inherently negative consequences of it into perspective in a way that is pure magic and completely awe-inspiring. She makes you think about fat-shaming and how it’s a societal construct that no one thinks about, but really fucking should.
She knew what the queen was seeing. Double chin and bulging waistline and thighs that pressed against the fabric of her jeans, wearing them out a little more every day. She knew what the queen wasn’t seeing just as well. She wasn’t seeing the athlete or the scholar or the friend or the hero of the Trenches. All she was seeing was the fatty fatty fat fat, because that was all they ever saw when they looked at her that way. That was all that they were looking for.”
Another character—one who is my favourite in the whole series—named Kade has brilliant rep. He is the one that I identified with the most. He was biologically born a female, but never felt quite right within his skin. I remember growing up I had always felt trapped in my body. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get my boobs to stop growing and I hated the way that men would look at me with filth in their gaze. I hated being told I was some sort of creature of sin because I was a “girl” and could have babies, especially because that label never felt right to me. The first time someone called me a dude or said “Sir” to me, I felt natural and at home. While I refer to myself as a gender neutral, or non-binary individual, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I’m more of a boy than anything else. But, like Kade, I had parents and a whole society trying to silence me or tell me to “get over this tomboy phase.” Kade’s experiences and intimate recounting of how he came to understand who he was made me cry. He said everything that I had ever felt and to see a representation of this, to read about, was an extraordinary feeling. It helps me believe that one day I will be comfortable enough to take that plunge myself.
So… yeah, diverse representations in Wayward Children kicks fucking ass, so much!!
The themes in Beneath the Sugar Sky are also lovely. They vary on a spectrum of fun and fluffy to heartfelt and emotional depending on the scene, but there are morsels of quite a few that work together to create a narrative that left me feeling very inspired and enlightened. Some of these pertain to fitting in, friendships, loss, and figuring out who the hell you are. The ones on friendship were extra special because it leads to one of the most hilarious conversations I’ve read across all three of the books. I can’t remember the last time I laughed-out-loud like that while reading fantasy.
The progression is also quite lovely. It truly is a fantastical adventure. A cast of kind-hearted folks receive a very important task and go from one place to another—literal and metaphorical—until they ultimately accomplish that task. Of course, like any grand adventure of fantasy, it’s never as straight-forward as that as there are usually titbits happening that one could never predict. While the story is mildly predictable, it also keeps you on your toes just enough to prevent it from falling into boring clichés and mediocrity.
Overall, Beneath the Sugar Sky is another outstanding addition to a series that is hastily becoming a favourite of mine. If you enjoy narratives with brilliant diverse rep, original and inspired world-building, intelligent themes of self-acceptance and growing up, and something that leaves you feeling good, then I highly recommend you read the Wayward Children series.