Down Among the Sticks and Bones: Inventive, enthralling, heartbreaking

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Tadiana’s new review.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsDown Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsDown Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway (2016) introduces the reader to a reality in which some children get swept away to other worlds. These worlds of whimsy or darkness (and everything in between) become home to the children so much so that they are devastated if they are forced to leave. If they do come back to our world, a fortunate few may find kindred spirits at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, the setting of that first novella. Now, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) centres on the events leading up to Jack’s and Jill’s stay at the home for wayward children. More specifically, their time in the world that chose both of them.

Two of the strengths of this prequel, to me, were the smaller cast of characters and the exploration of a new world. As an introduction to the possibilities and diversity of the magic system and people affected by it, I found Every Heart A Doorway satisfying. For Down Among the Sticks and Bones, however, I relished in the chance to get to see one of the worlds of the wayward children. To have the worlds they came from described in that first novella is to rely on an unreliable narrator — (most of) the children love their worlds, and describe them accordingly. To be able to see one such world from within is fresh territory for this series and I think it came at a valuable time. Not only that, but the narrower focus on just two central wayward children resulted in much more space for McGuire to explore them and their thoughts, feelings, and character developments.

Jack and Jill have an origin story that may be familiar to readers, or completely separate from their experiences. In either case, I think that the characterization of Jack and Jill as little girls is an engaging portrayal. The context of their parents’ attitudes towards life and their children is a unique kind of heartbreaking — this is a tale of emotional instability, keeping up appearances, and ultimately neglect. When Jack and Jill find their door and stumble into a grey new world, more changes than just their location. McGuire reveals their relationship as sisters in both complex internalized issues from their upbringing and in the changes they embrace in their new world. Jack and Jill react very differently to their new surroundings, and their relationship both changes drastically and stays the same in many respects. This portrayal of sisterhood is something I enjoyed reading for its depth and reflection of who Jack and Jill are as people both together and as individuals.

The love each girl finds in their new world is also telling of their personalities and priorities. In both cases they get the opportunity to explore their gender identities. Without spoiling some key character development, Jill gets in touch with some aspects of herself she had been suppressing and revels in the chance to be herself in some ways that eluded her before. Jack’s discovery of her identity is somewhat quieter, and comes with an exploration and assertion of her sexuality as well.

The motivations of the main characters, the grey and gothic setting, and the emotional toll of this tale combine in a way that is both satisfying and sometimes hard to read for the impending heartbreak. As a fan of Every Heart a Doorway I enjoyed the opportunity to get a fuller understanding of a smaller number of the wayward children. Going into Down Among the Sticks and Bones I assumed that it would concern the same protagonist (Nancy), but I quickly passed my confusion when presented with this enthralling story of Jack and Jill. This is not a light story, and holds an ample number of dark themes and horrifying moments. I don’t know for certain if Down Among the Sticks and Bones gets put in both the ‘horror’ and ‘fantasy’ categories, but it most definitely inhabits a space which overlaps them both. The borrowing of ideas and motifs, often in the background, from both genres blended together to create a narrative and setting I enjoyed exploring.

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones I found two protagonists who were flawed, confused, and coming-of-age in an unforgiving gothic world. I found two worlds which both had their own set of rules and pitfalls. I also found a great deal of imagery that made me feel for Jack and Jill even when they were being stubborn or naïve. Ultimately, I found a remarkable story. I feel certain it will be one of my favourites of 2017.

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children) Kindle Edition by Seanan McGuire

Sequel

~Skye Walker


Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire fantasy book reviewsSince Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, and so I was going into it already knowing where the story of Jack and Jill ends in this fantasy portal story, I was actually rather reluctant to pick it up. But Seanan McGuire tells this story so engagingly that I couldn’t help but savor it, despite some horrifying and heartbreaking aspects of it. I actually liked it better than Doorway … the story here made much more sense than the bizarre murder mystery in Doorway, and has a less timeworn plot.

Seanan McGuire spends the first quarter of the book relating how Jacqueline and Jillian are raised, or mis-raised, by their well-to-do parents, a story that could be painful and tedious if McGuire didn’t tell it with such relish. Their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, are caught up in their own concerns, and decide to have children only because they envy all of the attention their friends’ children get when their parents periodically bring them to work, dressed up and on best behavior. They have no idea what they’re getting into, and once they get into it, they do it with complete incompetence.

McGuire leavens the sad tale of the twins’ upbringing with her wry humor and insight, often offered up in parenthetical asides:

(The thought that babies would become children, and children would become people, never occurred to them. The concept that perhaps biology was not destiny, and that not all little girls would be pretty princesses, and not all little boys would be brave soldiers, also never occurred to them. Things might have been easier if those ideas had ever slithered into their heads, unwanted but undeniably important. Alas, their minds were made up, and left no room for such revolutionary opinions.)

Jacqueline becomes her mother’s project, always dolled up in frilly princess dresses, while Jillian is encouraged by her father to be a rough-and-tumble tomboy. But the girls don’t fit into these rigid molds quite as easily as their parents think.

One day, when the girls are twelve, they open an old trunk in an empty bedroom and find a long, impossible stairway that leads them to a fantastic land, where their love for each other (already strained) will be tested in terrible new ways, and they will be faced with choices that children shouldn’t have to make, and events and people that will divide them.

There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. There are worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of those things. The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.

The nicknames Jack and Jill ― which their parents refused to acknowledge ― are backwards from the roles the twins are given in their youth: Jack is the princess and Jill, the tomboy. I never did get used to that, though I applaud Down Among the Sticks and Bones for taking the unexpected route with their names. There’s a seismic shift, however, when the girls arrive in the Moors, where their characters develop in stunningly different ways than their parents had anticipated. Those unexpected developments nevertheless make sense, since McGuire has carefully laid the foundation in the way their younger personalities and characteristics were described.

The plot of Down Among the Sticks and Bones is intriguing, and it explores themes of parental expectations, gender roles (it may surprise you which of the girls is gay), and fraught sibling relationships with sharp perception. But it’s Seanan McGuire’s resonant writing that will particularly remain with me. The frequent humor and sarcasm lightens what might otherwise be an oppressively dark story, and the omniscient narrator’s insights into human motivations make for a compelling story.

Even though Every Heart a Doorway, to some extent, spoils the ending of this tale ― I still think it would work best to read Sticks and Bones before Doorway, if you haven’t read either yet ― it’s definitely worth stepping through the magic portal with Jack and Jill and tumbling down some (real and metaphorical) hills with them.

~Tadiana Jones

Publication date: June 13, 2017. Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This is the story of what happened first… Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline. Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got. They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted. They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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One comment

  1. Oooh, I have to read these books! Skye, you have to stop making them sound so appealing so that I can be more patient! :D

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