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Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire

July 6, 2020

IMG_4074On our long road trip to South Carolina and back we listened to Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and it was entertaining enough. I like YA books in the car because they take just the right amount of my attention.

Once we got back, I looked for other books in the series. I’d had enough of the dark worlds so I skipped the second one and went right for the third in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, in which Sumi’s daughter Rini comes back to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children to get help on her quest to rescue her mother and they find a way to get to Sumi’s door, the door to Confection.

One of the members of Rini’s rescue party is Cora, a girl with green and blue hair who came from a water world. Like all the wayward children, she has trouble re-adjusting to life in our ordinary world, but Cora has more trouble than most because she
“had been fat her entire life. She had been a fat baby, and a fat toddler in swim classes, and a fat child in elementary school. Day after day, she had learned that ‘fat’ was another way to say ‘worthless, ugly, waste of space, unwanted, disgusting….Then she had fallen into the Trenches…and suddenly she’d been beautiful. Suddenly she’d been strong, insulated against the bitter chill of the water, able to dive deeper and swim further than anyone else in the school.”
Cora keeps being afraid that the other wayward children will call her names and despise her for being fat, but she finds that they are more accepting than the children she’s met anywhere else in our world. It takes her a while, though, as she has the feelings of anyone who takes up more space in the world than others do:
“Riding in backseats always made her feel huge and worthless, taking up more space than she had any right to. The only reason she’d been able to stand it was that Nadya had been crammed into the middle, leaving Rini, still a virtual stranger, on the other side of the car. If Cora had been told she’d have to spend the entire drive pressed against someone she didn’t know, she would probably have skipped having an adventure in favor of hiding in her room.”

The rescue party goes to the underground world to which the protagonist of the first novel, Nancy, has returned. She is happy standing still for hours or even days, saying “it’s an honor and a calling, and I love it. I love it so much.” When another character says, as the reader might, “it seems stupid” Nancy replies “that’s because you weren’t called” and the narrator points out “that was true, and simple, and complete: it needed neither ornamentation nor addition.” It makes a reader think about how often we’re inclined to poke fun at what we don’t understand.

The narrator even speculates on how and why the different worlds that these children stumble into were created:
“Maybe the first baker, the girl who just wanted to make bread, had come from a place where there was never enough food, or where the bread went bad before she could eat it. So she’d baked and baked and baked, until her stomach wasn’t empty anymore, until she wasn’t afraid of starving, and then she’d gone home, having learned the only lesson that a small and empty world had to teach her.
According to Rini, Confection was like a jawbreaker. Cora thought it was more like a pearl, layers on layers on layers, all surrounding that first, all-encompassing need. Hunger was about as primal as needs got. What if all worlds were like that? What if they were all built up by the travelers who tripped over a doorway and found their way to someplace perfect, someplace hyperreal, someplace they could need? Someplace where that need could be met?”

The group eventually meets the god of Confection, the Baker, and she bakes up a new version of Sumi, despite their doubts that this can possibly work, telling them that “baking something transforms it, and anyone who’s ever eaten a piece of cake will tell you that sometimes we can take baked goods and turn them into a part of ourselves.”

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a lovely little confection of a book. After I finished reading it, Ron got the results of his post-road-trip coronavirus test: negative. And so we can go on enjoying the delights of my favorite time of year, between the fourth of July and my birthday on the eighth, for a few more delightful days.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2020 7:19 pm

    Is a walrus fat? Or an elephant? Does anyone ever try to put the hippopotamus at the zoo on a diet?

    It is not a character flaw to be fat; it is a failure of the autonomic systems which govern breathing, heart rate, circulation, digestion, … to maintain a proper body weight.

    Fat people are seen as moral deviants, where models who take drugs not to eat are praised. Crazy world.

    • July 6, 2020 7:44 pm

      Mostly agree. Except for the part about fat being a physical “failure” of the body to be “proper.”

      • July 6, 2020 8:42 pm

        You can overwhelm all physical properties – for a time. Then the regulatory mechanisms kick in.

        Unfortunately, spare stored fat is a thing because animals with padding survived winters more often than those without when food was scarce, so we have a system DESIGNED to be overwhelmed. All excess carbs are immediately converted to fat and stored, and the body demands more. I manage that system gone awry by not eating carbs. I have no idea how it got that bad in the first place.

        • July 6, 2020 9:22 pm

          But the way you describe it doesn’t sound unfortunate to me. If extra fat is meant to help an animal survive, how is that a bad thing? I do get that *too much* fat has been correlated with health problems for some, but “too much” is a relative term that can vary person to person. In Cora’s case, her body size has nothing to do with poor health or an improperly-working system. After all, she’s the most athletic person in the school.

          • July 6, 2020 9:37 pm

            I think Seanan McGuire’s message (which is anything but heavy-handed) is that “proper” is something each person defines for herself in her circumstances. The proper weight for Cora is very different from the proper weight for Nancy (who got parental pressure to eat more in the first book).

  2. July 6, 2020 7:41 pm

    I love McGuire’s worldbuilding. I love how she treats all her characters with the utmost respect, and tells readers, “I dare you. Just see what happens if you don’t do the same.” And I love watching Nadya chasing turtles and yelling, “Come back and let me love you!” I want a whole story about the Trenches and Balyrekka and the Drowned Gods (book 5).

  3. July 7, 2020 7:46 am

    Ooh, happy early birthday, friend!!! I have tried a few Seanan Maguire books and just haven’t gotten on with them — they sound so up my alley! It’s a mystery. But I’m glad this one gave you joy and very glad indeed to hear that Ron’s test was negative. 🙂

    • July 7, 2020 8:14 am

      Thanks! Eleanor is here to celebrate with us and then she has to get back home and prepare for the Aug. 10 start of classes at UNC.
      Such a short summer.

  4. July 7, 2020 6:26 pm

    So glad your husband’s test was negative.

  5. July 11, 2020 10:38 pm

    I don’t really listen to audiobooks but last year I was driving from the northeast down to Florida. I was by myself. I decided to try an audiobook and after listening to a few realized I only had these scary, serial killer type ones, not good for driving alone in the dark. Anyhow, I tried to download different types of stories, I tried a subscription to Audible, but I just don’t enjoy listening to books. Did you like them from the start?

    • July 11, 2020 10:43 pm

      Yes, but I started with audiobooks of children’s books when we went on long car trips with our kids. I used to get them from the public library. One of our favorites was E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.

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