Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
My Rating: 5/5 TARDISes
Series: Wayward Children
Date Published: June 13th, 2017
Pages: 189 pages
Synopsis: 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.
This is a spoiler-free review.
I absolutely adored this novel, which is why it has taken me so long to write up this review—I’m having so much trouble trying to find the right words to express how much I loved it. The first novel in this series, Every Heart a Doorway, was an already amazing start, but this sequel completely surpassed it in my opinion. Once again, McGuire brings us another captivating modern fairytale that is very dark in tone, and has a very beautiful yet bittersweet plot line. She has a gift for mixing together the perfect amount of relatable reality with the peculiar, the sinister, and the bizarre.
Much like the previous installment, McGuire focuses in on the stark contrast between fantasy and reality—how easy and freeing it can be to escape into fantasy, and the pains of suddenly being forced back into the real world. It tackles the subject of self-discovery and breaking away from the labels that society and even the people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart put on us. Even with the fantastical elements, at its core, this story is a highly relatable depiction of what every single one of us has gone through or will go through in our lives—the universal idea of finding oneself and being accepted.
Unlike the first novel, we get a chance to fully dive into one of those fantasy worlds from which the wayward children come back, making this an incredibly unique and utterly captivating story. It honestly could work perfectly as a standalone, but is definitely most interesting in the context of the rest of the series. I didn’t think I could love these books or Seanan McGuire’s writing any more than I did already, but this novel completely proved me wrong.
In this novel, we jump back in time to explore the experiences of two previous side characters—twins Jacqueline and Jillian—in their formative years, both with their family and during their time in the Moors, their alternate world. The two girls are brought up in the strictly regimented lives of their parents, who wish to mold them into what they perceive as the perfect children. Jacqueline is placed in the role of her mother’s perfect daughter—always wearing dresses, never getting her clothes soiled, and faultlessly polite. On the other side, Jillian becomes her father’s idea of the perfect daughter—an adventurous tom-boy who plays sports with the boys and is never afraid to get dirty.
In their youngest years, they play along in their assigned roles without question. But as they grow and experience life, the twins begin to wonder why—why their personalities are being dictated for them and why they can’t break away. Just as they are beginning to figure out what they truly want in life, the door to their other world appears. Soon, they are walking separate paths and coming into their own—learning that there are no set rules for how to be a girl. But in this eerie and twisted world, the sisters veer away from each other in more ways than they ever could have predicted.
The main aspect of this novel that I adored was getting the chance to see the background of these two characters—whom we’ve already come to care about—and actually delving deeply into the intriguing and frightening world of the Moors, in which they find themselves living for a time. Unlike the first novel, this one deals primarily with Jack and Jill’s time in their alternate world, rather than with the result of spending so long living there. It was wonderful to really explore the details of one of these fantasies that is only hinted at previously. McGuire has already proved her immense talent for the creative and unique, but she is able to take it to a whole new level with this particular story.
McGuire does another spectacular job creating vivid and multi-dimensional characters in this novel, despite the limitations of its length. Jack and Jill evolve a great deal throughout the course of the narrative. Having this extra time to experience these two characters helped flesh out their personalities even more than the previous novel did. Though none of us have had lives quite like theirs’, the struggle to find oneself in a society that is obsessed with labeling is a common theme that any reader can connect with.
Jack and Jill’s parents are horribly selfish, yet a hugely important element of the novel. Their parts in forcing the two girls into the lives and personalities that they would like them to have is an essential trigger for Jack and Jill finally realizing and becoming who they are truly meant to be. It is their strictness that sends them looking for answers and toward the door that has just opened for them. All of their efforts to mold the perfect daughters only drives the twins more toward independence and the ability to discover themselves.
The writing, as in the first novel, is once again pure magic. Seanan McGuire’s talent at crafting these beautiful and unique little vignettes is boundless. Her writing is fluid and simple, but her words contain a great amount of depth. This novel is slightly slower-paced than its predecessor, but that does not make it any less compulsively readable. For me, I loved the fact that I could take my time and really get wrapped up in the world. Even though I am always left dying for more, the narrative as a whole is a solid, complete, and fulfilling story.
The term that continuously returns to my mind when reading or thinking about these stories is “fractured fairytales”. They are enchanting and magical, as any fairytale is, yet also broken and sharp. They take you on a journey beyond the boundaries of the natural world, to the furthest reaches of your imagination, and then cut into you with their menacing undertones and unsettling twists. Instead of being sparkling and refreshing, they are murky and rough around the edges.
Everything about this novel is darkly beautiful, enchanting, heartbreaking, and bittersweet—there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t love with all my heart. McGuire expertly unfolds another haunting, gritty, and whimsical modern day fairytale that is sure to captivate readers. It is such a short story, but it packs a huge punch in a small amount of time, and the length never inhibits the reader’s ability to become enveloped by this world. Though I don’t want it to be over just yet, I am still absolutely dying to get my hands on the final book in this trilogy.