At long last, I’ve made it to Seanan McGuire’s Hugo Finalist. Well, this year’s Hugo Finalist. For Best Novella. Look, McGuire gets nominated a lot. At any rate, Come Tumbling Down, the fifth installment in the Wayward Children series, garnered a Best Novella nomination, and I figured I’d try to give myself the best chance of actually enjoying it by reading the backstory. So I knocked out Every Heart a Doorway (review) and Down Among the Sticks and Bones (review)—the two previous books featuring the central character from Come Tumbling Down—back in July and set myself up to read the nominee with the proper context.
Come Tumbling Down stars Jack Walcott and takes place after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, with Jack having gone back through her portal to the Moors—the horrifying fantasy world where she found her calling as a mad scientist (madness not included, unless we’re counting OCD). But there’s trouble in the Moors, Jack has lost her proper body, and she returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children to enlist help in getting her body back and keeping the vampires from seizing control over her land. And so Jack is joined by a handful of characters from the first book, one from the second, and one from the third (that I didn’t read) as they journey back into the Moors and seek to save herself and her loved ones.
McGuire is a skilled writer, and the prose is a strength throughout the novella, but the addition of a Nonsense world veteran and her interjections of nonsense keeps the novella from capturing the enveloping dark fairy tale atmosphere that made the second installment so great. And this failure presages additional shortcomings from a novella that generally feels overstuffed. The quest is broken into three parts—assembling the team, seeking help in the realm of the Drowned Gods, and facing off with the vampires—and is undergone by an adventuring party of six. And that’s a lot for less than 40,000 words, leading to a story that feels like it never gets time to do justice to any given element.
The main conflict is Jack’s body being stolen and her OCD making it impossible to function with its replacement, and we see this alternately from her perspective and through the eyes of her companions. But, despite the warnings of dire consequences if she fails to get her body back, she is able to do what is necessary to reach her goals. After a really wonderful depiction of psychological struggles in one of my most recent prior reads, this one feels like just enough struggle to set the stakes but not enough to really get in the way. Coupled with an ending that didn’t quite feel earned—which was expected after seeing the same in Every Heart a Doorway—I just never believed the stated levels of peril.
Of course, Jack isn’t the only one involved, and we spend time looking through the eyes of every one of the four schoolmates who join her quest. Cora, in particular, is faced with the challenge of sticking with her fellows and avoiding the call of a much more dangerous ocean than her mermaid home. But mostly, the side characters feel superfluous—we spend enough time head-hopping that it distracts from the tighter focus on Jack that had carried Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but we don’t have enough to get any side character arcs that are especially compelling (or even enough to understand why Jack needed to seek help in the first place).
McGuire writes well, and she comes into this book having already established a compelling world and several interesting characters. But Come Tumbling Down just tries to wedge too much in to a small space, leading to a story that attempts a lot more than it lands.
Recommended only if you’re a big fan of the series.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Chapter Titles, Found Family, Trans/NB Character, and I’d say Revenge-Seeking Character. It’s also a Book Club book.
Overall rating: 11 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.