Many things have transpired at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children since I read the debut novella, Every Heart a Doorway, but I did not feel lost at all. My thanks to Seanan McGuire for making subsequent installments of her series inviting even to people who do not hang on its every word. The Home is a haven for children who have had doors open for them into other worlds, worlds in which they were heroes, worlds which subsequently sent them back to this mundane order where they are hopelessly out of place and yearn for a way back. The Home gives some of them hope, all of them understanding, and many of them peers among fellow returnees.
Come Tumbling Down opens in the basement room that formerly belonged to Jack (short for Jacqueline), a student who, along with her twin sister Jill (short for Jillian), found her way back to the other world. Christopher, whose room it is now, was down there dreading the time when he will be too old for the school and longing for his Skeleton Girl and the Country of Bones, when the overhead light “flickered again before spitting a great, uneven bolt of lightning that struck the concrete floor with a crack so loud it was like the whole world was being broken.” (Ch. 1) Not the whole world but the gap between two worlds. Jack is back from the Moors, and in dire condition.
Well, not exactly Jack. Jack in Jill’s body, though the only student who recognizes that is Sumi, hero of Beneath the Sugar Sky. Sumi went to a Nonsense world called Confection and, as another character observes, it left her a little bit scrambled. “‘Dying scrambled me more,’ said Sumi matter-of-factly” (Ch. 2) which sums her up nicely.
“Jack’s still Jack when she’s not wearing gloves,” said Sumi. “She’s still Jack when she’s not wearing her own skin, too. It’s a neat trick. Imagine if I could put on someone else’s skin and have everyone believe it was really them! I’d be so many people every day.” (Ch. 2)
Jack, once she is revived, does not find it a neat trick at all. Naturally fastidious and with a horror of dirt and germs, she’s worse than appalled to be wearing someone else’s body. That it’s Jill’s only makes matters worse, as she knows many of the terrible things that Jill has done with those hands, things that no amount of cleaning can wash away. What is to be done, and who is to do it? Jack arrived through the lightning door in the arms of her beloved Alexis. Christopher was already in the basement room, Sumi arrived soon after. The commotion also drew in Kade, who has become a deputy to Eleanor West, and Cora, a relative newcomer to the school.
That sets the who, and Jack is determined to return to the Moors, her other world, to undo the body change, and to ensure that Jill can never again attempt such an act. In short, to kill her permanently. When the young people take their plans to Eleanor, she tries to deflect them. Couldn’t Jack learn to live in her new body? It is, after all, an identical twin to hers. Perhaps Eleanor is motivated by lingering affection for Jill, who was once also a wayward child at the school; perhaps she truly cannot see the horror for Jack of being trapped in a body that is wrong for her. Sumi will have none of it.
“No,” [Sumi] said. The calm was gone from her voice, replaced by all her hero’s wildness, which cut through the whimsy she draped around herself like a knife through taffy. “No, and no, and no. You’re better than those words, Ely-Eleanor, you’re better than those thoughts. No one should have to sit and suffer and pretend to be someone they’re not because it’s easier, or because no one wants to help them fix it. Jack isn’t Jill, and Jill isn’t Jack, and if Jack wants her own body back, we’re going to help her get it. You don’t have to give us your permission. We can just go.” (Ch. 5)
But it’s not just righteous confrontation in this coming-of-age moment, a moment in which McGuire also shows the formidable Eleanor edging closer to retirement.
“If you already knew you you were going to go, why did you come to me?” asked Eleanor, in a voice that had grown very small.
“Because we love you, Eleanor-Ely,” said Sumi. “We didn’t want you to just turn around and find us all gone away. That would be cruel. I can be a lot of things, and some are good and some are bad, but I try not to be cruel when I don’t have to.” (Ch. 5)
Come Tumbling Down is Jack’s story, but it may be that Sumi is the hero of the piece. Here an ally for Jack, then having compassion for Eleanor and showing everyone how it’s done, later getting the group moving again instead of sacrificing all of themselves short of their goals. Even though it looks blithe, possibly cruel, when she says “Sometimes a hero has to fall” (Ch. 11) that’s what has to happen if the group is to restore Jack and prevent Jill and her vampire master from unbalancing the Moors. She’s also great comic relief: “This is terrible,” said Sumi brightly. “I mean, we knew it was going to be terrible when we followed a mad scientist and her dead girlfriend [Alexis has been resurrected but still has to be periodically recharged by lightning] to a horrifying murder world, but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.” (Ch. 11)
This pell-mell story goes quickly and excitingly, and although looking back from the end I think that it all went the way it had to, while I was reading I thought the outcome was very much in doubt. Whereas, for example, The Martian is not the kind of book that leaves its protagonist stranded and dying, a Wayward Children novella could well leave everyone worse off at its resolution. As it is, some characters choose unhappy outcomes; sometimes that is necessary, sometimes it’s less unhappy than the alternative and leaves open the possibility of better opportunities in the future. I agree with Doreen that some of the denouements came quickly and with less resistance than I would have expected, but I’m not sure that greater length would have helped. This is a tale that is built to go fast — as it does — and if the end is not the strongest point of the novella, then it’s worth looking to the side to see what McGuire emphasizes most. I found that in the interplay among Jack’s supporters and in the moments that revealed their struggles.
Come Tumbling Down was the fifth of this year’s six Hugo finalists in the Best Novella category that I have read. Doreen’s review is here.