Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah Baker (The Up-and-Under #4)
Since stumbling from their world into the Up and Under, Avery and Zib have walked the improbable road across forests, seas and skies, finding friends in the unlikeliest of places and enemies great in number, as they make their way toward the Impossible City in the hope of finding their way home.
But the final part of their journey is filled with danger and demise. Not everyone will make it through unscathed. Not everyone will make it through alive.
The final part of the enchanting Up-and-Under quartet reminds us of the value of friendship and the price one sometimes pays for straying from the path. No-one’s safety can be guaranteed under the smokestrewn sky.
LENGTH: 208 pages
AGE: Middle Grade
Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.
UNDER THE SMOKESTREWN SKY brings Avery, Zib, and their companions to the Land of Ash and Embers. As fire is the most obviously transformational of the four elements in this series, I appreciate how this book focuses on transformations and the endpoints after major decisions.
As the final book in the quartet, UNDER THE SMOKESTREWN SKY wraps up many dangling narratives, including but not limited to the fate of the missing queen, whether Avery and Zib make it out of the Up-and-Under, and whether any of them reach the Impossible City. There’s a mostly new storyline which didn’t appear in the other three books, as the general goal of finding the missing queen becomes their specific task at hand. To this end they begin searching the Land of Ash and Embers on their way to the Impossible City. There’s a crisis related to Zib which is introduced and resolved in this book. As the story nears its end, Baker's narration is at times concerned as much with the emotional state of the reader as she is with the decisions made by any of the characters. A foundational assumption in Seanan McGuire's writing is that knowing something changes the person who finds it out. This is said quite explicitly in the narration as Baker discussing how you can only read the story for the first time once, after that you'll never view it the same way again.
One of the things I appreciate specifically in Seanan McGuire's writing is the way that she treats identity and memory. I recently wrote an essay about how this is handled in the most recent October Daye books, but a smaller version of this happens here as well with Soleil and I’d be remiss if I elided over it. Soleil is figuring out who she is and how her friendships with the other characters do or don’t overlap with who the Crow Girl was to them. As much as the Crow Girl was her own person, that person is not the same as Soleil, nor who Soleil should be as she remembers more of what she gave up to become the Crow Girl in the first place. Soleil can't have the same relationships that the Crow Girl had, even less so once she reclaims the other memories which she lost.
Because of the way the Up-and-Under series exists juxtaposed with the longer Alchemical Journeys books, it's doing double duty as itself and as a fable-style meta-commentary that is used by some characters in that series to understand their own lives. Now that this journey is complete I can say confidently that this quartet tells a complete story which would be interesting, even to those who have never heard of MIDDLEGAME, but certain aspects of it will likely end up more meaningful when they appear quoted those other books. Even though this phase of the series is distinct from the others and it tells a particular narrative from beginning to end, this is best read after the other three books as you would otherwise be witness to several transformations without seeing where they began.
I’m very pleased with how this wraps up, and I’m excited for when it’s eventually quoted in the Alchemical Journeys series.
Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, child death, death.
Moderate CW for fire/fire injury, confinement, violence, war, murder.