Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah BakerInto the Windwracked Wilds (The Up-and-Under, #3) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #3
Pages: 224
Published by Tordotcom on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Adventurous readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books will be sure to soar among the dark marvels that can be found in Into the Windwracked Wilds, by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
When the improbable road leaves Avery and Zib in the land of Air and at the mercy of the Queen of Swords, escape without becoming monsters may be impossible. But with the aid of the Queen's son, the unpredictable Jack Daw, they may emerge with enough of their humanity to someday make it home. Their journey is not yet over; the dangers are no less great.

My Review:

Looking back at my review of the first book in the Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, I discovered that one of my early guesses was wrong. One of Zib and Avery’s companions does need to find a heart – a particular heart – after all.

They all need to find more than a bit of ‘the nerve’ by the time the Improbable Road whisks them off again, further away from who they were when they first climbed that wall but hopefully closer to getting home. Or deciding that they are already there.

Into the Windwracked Wilds makes no bones (although there are bones) about the fact that it is a middle book, with pretty much all of the darkness such books generally hold. A darkness that is not toned down all that much in spite of the series being theoretically aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.

Don’t let that fool you. The trappings of the story may make it seem like a book for younger readers – and it certainly can be read that way. BUT, like a more overtly dark version of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the seriousness of its story appeals equally, if not perhaps a bit more, to adults.

Well, certainly to this adult. Although adulting is both in the eye of the beholder and can be seriously overrated.

Howsomever, the lovely thing about the book acknowledging that it’s in the middle of a much longer story is that it does an equally lovely job of explaining why middle books are important for the journey of the protagonists – as well as giving the reader enough details about what came before to be going on with.

After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and traveling Along the Saltwise Sea with the pirates, Zib, Avery, Niamh the Drowned Girl and the Crow Girl with no name begin their journey Into the Windwracked Wilds by making the Improbable Road angry enough to dump them back into the Sea. And disappear – at least until they manage to do something improbable enough to bring it back.

Which is how they find themselves blown towards the Queen of Swords’ castle in the Land of Air. Doing their level best not to get turned into monsters. Or at least, Avery and Zib need to do their best, because monsterization has already happened to both Niamh and the Crow Girl.

In fact, the Crow Girl, whatever her name used to be, was turned into a monster by the very same Queen of Swords who has just swept them into her castle. And wants to keep them there.

This is the story of how this ragtag band of lost souls were forced into a castle of nightmares – and managed to find their way out again. With just a little bit of help from a new friend – by finding the one thing that none of them had thought to look for – the Crow Girl’s missing heart.

Escape Rating A-: From the beginning, it has seemed as if the direct progenitors of the Up-and-Under were Oz and Narnia. The similarities between the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and the ‘Improbable Road’ are a bit hard to miss, after all.

But this particular entry in the series makes me think of Narnia. A lot. Not the Narnia of the great lion and Aslan saving the day, but the Narnia of choices of consequence made by uninformed children, and the lesson that adults are often cruel and that words and actions may have terrible consequences even if the words are said or the deeds are committed in ignorance of those consequences. The world where the kindly Mr. Tumnus plans to betray the children, refuses to do so, and is tortured for it. The island where dreams come true – and the realization that it does NOT refer to daydreams, but rather the monsters summoned from deep in the subconscious.

A place where children have to pay their own debts and forfeits – no matter how much they hurt or how often the adults cheat. The Up-and-Under feels like it’s filled with those same kinds of hard lessons – no matter how magical and even beautiful it might sometimes be.

But I think the return from the Up-and-Under to Zib and Avery’s ‘real’ world is going to be a lot more difficult than what the Pevensies encountered. Because the point of Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under seems as if the entire point of it is change, not just for the Up-and-Under to impact them, but for them to impact it, as well.

Unlike Along the Saltwise Sea, which felt very much like a rest stop along their journey, Into the Windwracked Wilds reads like they are really getting somewhere – even if that somewhere is not the return home that Zib and Avery were originally seeking. This may eventually turn out to be a ‘There and Back Again’ story, but at this middle point it’s starting to feel like their journey and the changes it brings is infinitely more important than the destination.

As much as their travels have been clearly changing Avery and Zib all along, Avery and Zib are also changing the people and even the structure of the Up-and-Under in ways that we’ll probably only see the full picture of at the end. Which was originally planned to be the fourth book, which was originally planned to be published in October 2023. I hope that all holds true. At least that the next book comes out this time next year. If we get a bit more story in this world than was originally intended, this reader, for one, would not be in the least disappointed.

Review: Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah BakerAlong the Saltwise Sea (The Up-and-Under, #2) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on October 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books, adventure and danger lurk Along the Saltwise Sea in this new book by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
Be sure to explore the myriad wonders that can be found Along the Saltwise Sea.
After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and making their way across the forest, Avery and Zib found themselves acquiring some extraordinary friends in their journey through the Up-and-Under.
After staying the night, uninvited, at a pirate queen’s cottage in the woods, the companions find themselves accountable to its owner, and reluctantly agree to work off their debt as her ship sets sail, bound for lands unknown. But the queen and her crew are not the only ones on board, and the monsters at sea aren’t all underwater.
The friends will need to navigate the stormy seas of obligation and honor on their continuing journey along the improbable road
Writing as A. Deborah Baker, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes our heroes Avery and Zib (and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl) on a high seas adventure, with pirates and queens and all the dangers of the deep as they continue their journey through the Up-and-Under on their quest for the road that will lead them home....
Welcome to a world of talking trees and sarcastic owls, of dangerous mermaids and captivating queens in this exceptional tale for readers who are young at heart in this companion book to McGuire's critically-acclaimed Middlegame and the sequel to Over the Woodward Wall.

My Review:

Childhood is not nearly so safe as we like to imagine. Safety, after all, is a bit of an illusion, and there are entirely too many children in situations that make it unsafe to be a child. Whatever the adults around them might think.

In their own ways, at the beginning of the first book in The Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, Avery and Zib both believed they were more or less safe, although their beliefs about exactly what constituted safety were as opposite as opposite could be.

But then, so were they. Avery loved rules and order while Zib loved adventure. Avery was polite and well-behaved. Zib was a force of nature. Avery’s parents were all about a place for everything and everything in its place. Zib’s parents were either indulgent or neglectful, depending on one’s perspective. Avery’s parents would say that Zib’s parents were extremely neglectful, and would never have let Avery associate with a girl they would see as wild and untamed.

When Avery and Zib went Over the Woodward Wall into the Up-and-Under, their adventures cemented this unlikely pair into a solid unit against a world that seemed determined to swallow them up and NOT spit them out. Ever.

At least, not as they were. Although time will do that anyway, whether or not one travels the Improbable Road through the Up-and-Under in search of a way home.

Escape Rating B: If you loved Over the Woodward Wall, and I very much did, it is just lovely to be back in the Up-and-Under, this less safe and even less logical amalgam of Wonderland and Narnia and every other world opened up by a child’s portal, with Avery and Zib and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl.

As much as I loved being with them again, this feels like not so much a new adventure in their journey on the Improbable Road to find the Queen of Wands as it does a bit of a stop along the way.

Their sojourn on the pirate ship is interesting but the ship isn’t going anywhere and as long as they are aboard her, neither are they. It’s a bit of a rest stop, with a roof over their heads, somewhat comfortable beds to sleep in and no worries about regular -and delicious – meals.

But very little happens – at least until the very end when suddenly a lot happens all at once, a bit of how the world works gets explained, and the Improbable Road finds them again and whisks them off to more adventure.

So if you’re already into this world, this is a lovely little trip back. If you’ve not yet been, start with Over the Woodward Wall. If you love the author’s Wayward Children series, or if you got fascinated with the bits of The Up-and-Under that were revealed in Middlegame, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll be looking forward to Avery and Zib’s next adventure. After all, they haven’t found the Queen of Wands yet – or the road that will lead them home.

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah BakerOver the Woodward Wall (The Up-and-Under, #1) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #1
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

If you trust her you’ll never make it home…
Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.
Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.
They live on the same street.They live in different worlds.
On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.
And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

My Review:

If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the grandparent book, and Narnia and Oz were the parent books – but wait, there’s another generation in there. If Alice was the great-grandparent, Narnia and Oz were the grandparents and Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame was the parent – perhaps with her Wayward Children series as the aunts and uncles – you’d get something like Over the Woodward Wall, and hopefully the following books in The Up-and-Under series, as the book-children.

Not that Over the Woodward Wall isn’t perfectly understandable and enjoyable without having read any of the above. But if you’re familiar with any of them, you can kind of see them looking on with pride and possibly a bit of chagrin, as all progenitors sometimes do, at the actions of their new and often unruly and less than well behaved descendent.

At least Zib is poorly behaved, according to some lights. Including her fellow adventurer Avery when this story begins.

It’s hard to get the comparisons to Wonderland, Narnia and Oz out of your head while reading Over the Woodward Wall. If Wonderland had physically reached out and grabbed Alice, instead of just grabbing her emotionally or psychologically, and if she’d been operating on the buddy system, the beginning of her story might be even closer to Woodward Wall.

Like Wonderland and Narnia, there are four kings and queens – or there are supposed to be four kings and queens. But the royals currently in office are all rather like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the White Witch in Narnia. While the road that Zib and Avery are traveling on, like the Yellow Brick Road of Oz, is neither as straight nor as without danger as the locals claim it to be. Although Zib and Avery’s companions, the Crow Girl and the Drowning Girl, while they are certainly missing something essentially it’s nothing so straightforward as brains, a heart or even the nerve, nor is it going to be as simple to discover how to get them back.

In the end, this is a story about friendship, and about being true to yourself above all, and about loyalty. It’s also a story about learning that even as a child, the world is neither as safe nor protected as you might want it to be, and that you need to learn to take care of yourself and your choices – with a little bit of help from the friends you find along the way.

Escape Rating B+: A. Deborah Baker is Seanan McGuire writing not so much under a pen name but rather under the name of a character she created in Middlegame. Bits and pieces of the stories in The Up-and Under were introduced in Middlegame as stories written by a character in the book named A. Deborah Baker, all of which serves to explain where this series comes from and why it’s under a new pseudonym for the author who already writes as Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire.

The irony for this reader is that I liked this story – maybe not quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway and Across the Green Grass Fields, but still quite a lot – even though I bounced hard off Middlegame and never went back to it. I’m starting to believe that the answer is that I like this author in smaller chunks, possibly because her style of fairy tale feeling stories for adults works better for me in the shorter form.

While this story reminds me a lot of its antecedents, it’s also different from all of them in a way that feels more interesting and more realistic. Oz and Wonderland both turned out to be dreams rather than reality. Narnia was real, for select definitions of real, but even though the Pevensie children spent decades in Narnia and reached adulthood there, when they returned to the real world they remembered Narnia and all their experiences there BUT they returned to being children as if no time had passed at all. Even odder, they returned seemingly unaffected and unchanged by their decades of extra life experience.

Zib and Avery are changing all the time, and as we learn at the end of the story, real time is passing both for them and for their parents back home. While on the one hand this feels like a fairy tale, on the other it definitely reads like a journey with consequences. Zib and Avery have an important mission to complete in the Up-and-Under, and their experiences in that world have already changed them from who they were – and who they would have become as a result. They already see the world differently, and it feels like those changes are going to have long-term effects, just as the children’s journeys do in Wayward Children.

We’ll certainly have time to find out, as Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under continues in Along the Saltwise Sea later this year. They’re going to sail with a pirate queen!