I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children #2
Published by Knopf on June 13 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: Like all the best fairy tales, this story is both magical and foreboding, a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of gender stereotyping, told as only Seanan McGuire can.
Just as she did in Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire captures a mood of nostalgia and sadness in her follow-up, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. In the first novella, her theme was all about growing up and leaving childhood behind, but this time she tackles the more complicated ideas of how we, as adults, shape our children, and how that can either be beneficial or harmful. In this case, the parents of Jacqueline and Jillian (Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway) do everything wrong.
This novella works perfectly as a standalone, as it’s actually a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, and new readers can safely start the series with this book. Chester and Serena have never wanted children, until they begin to notice their friends’ and co-workers’ children, who seem to make parenthood more appealing. Sensing that something might be missing in their lives, they decide to become parents themselves. Serena dreams of a lovely girl who she can dress up and show off, and Chester secretly wishes for a son, strong and athletic. They are both surprised when Serena gives birth to twin girls, who they name Jacqueline and Jillian.
And no surprise to anyone, Serena quickly finds out that she’s unable to cope with real babies, who cry and are messy and don’t sleep. So into their suddenly chaotic household sweeps their grandmother, Louise Wolcott, the true heroine of the story (whose role is way too brief), a warm and loving woman who encourages the girls to be whatever they want. Louise was by far my favorite character, a brief shining star in Jacqueline’s and Jillian’s childhood.
As the girls grow up, it soon becomes clear that Jillian is more of a risk-taker and naturally athletic, while Jacqueline is timid and delicate. Serena sees Jacqueline as the daughter she dreamed of and begins dressing her in flowing, princess-like dresses, while Chester recognizes Jillian as the son he wished he had, and encourages her to play sports and cut her hair in a short pixie cut. You can see where this is going. Without the gentle guidance of Louise, the girls are more or less forced to become their parents’ vision of what they wanted in a child, one the girl and one the boy, while deep down the girls are immensely unhappy with the way things are turning out.
And this is when they stumble upon a secret doorway to another world, after which nothing will ever be the same. They find themselves in a strange world called the Moors, a place of “monstrous beauty and terrible consequences.” There Jack and Jill meet two men who will force them to make a decision that will further divide them.
McGuire has actually written two stories: the first is a detailed account of the girls growing up, and it basically serves to set up the second part, which is the real story: what happens to the girls during their years spent in the Moors. If you enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway, then you’ll love the quirky, otherworldliness of the sisters’ adventures in the Moors, which are odd and magical, frightening and sad, and sometimes just plain weird. Monsters are everywhere in this story—not only on the Moors, but in the oceans and mountains, where familiar creatures lurk. But the most monstrous beings are the two mysterious men who act as teachers to the sisters: one who calls himself the Master and takes Jill on as a “foundling,” while Dr. Bleak, a Frankenstein-like character who attempts to bring the dead back to life, accepts Jack as an apprentice. I found it interesting that the girls switch roles at this point. Jack now wears pants and does hard labor for Dr. Bleak, while Jill takes luxurious baths and lives a life of ease. (And they’ve both seemed to accept their new nicknames!)
A lot goes on in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and the plot is rather haphazard, more like a series of “things that happen” than an overall, arching storyline. There is a growing sense of doom as the girls grow into their respective roles, and the wedge that their parents managed to drive between them years ago still exists, but on a larger scale. I found this to be a rather sad story, although McGuire gives us hope at the end as Jack and Jill finally join forces. The ending worked surprisingly well (although it’s very abrupt!) and nicely leads into Every Heart a Doorway (if you’ve read it then you’ll probably have an “ah ha!” moment like I did).
I loved McGuire’s messages about gender identity and raising children without pushing them into the clichéd roles that society inevitably forces them into. “Be yourself” is one of the best things you can tell a young child, and that message rings loud and clear in this story.
This is a dark and bleak tale that nonetheless feels magical and full of possibilities. McGuire has introduced us to plenty of characters that all deserve to tell their backstories, and I can hardly wait for the next one.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.