Down Among the Sticks and Bones

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, quiet, and 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.

For those of you not familiar with the works of Seanan McGuire, you should acquaint yourselves. She uses her real name for her fantasy works, and Mira Grant for her science fiction. She creates concrete universes inhabited by interesting people, no matter what genre she’s writing.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which was released yesterday, is actually the second in a new series from McGuire, The Wayward Children series. The first, Every Heart a Doorway, which came out in April of 2017 and has since won a Nebula Award for best novella. The overarching plot behind the series is that there’s a group home for children dealing with the psychological fallout of being returned from various magical realms back to the mundane life on Earth they had left behind.

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

The children, and magical worlds, are all original to McGuire but you will see clear commentary on Wendys, Alices, and Pevensies. The idea is absolutely perfect for Seanan to tackle; it makes available everything she excels at. She has a way to bring in a large number of characters, reason to delve into their psyche and growth, and create countless worlds for them to explore, as well as leave. Clearly things clicked, as the first novel has found a devoted audience and is now critically acclaimed and awarded.

And yet Every Heart a Doorway didn’t thrill me. Feed, the first book in the Newsflesh series (written under the name Mira Grant) stole my heart. I was instantly devoted to the characters and revered the way she had made zombies exciting and new. And while Nancy in Every Heart, a curious mix of Alice and Persephone, was interesting there was just something that felt missing. Whatever that absent element was, it’s present in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and in abundance. This second installment is gripping and compelling and fulfilling in all the emotional ways that I thought Every Heart should have been.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones follows two characters first introduced in the earlier novel, the sisters Jack and Jill. This book is actually a prequel, following their magical journey, and does a great deal to deepen their character. Things that felt a bit rote in the first book actually take on deeper meaning when I returned to it. Perhaps it is that in the first book I could only read about their journey and loss, and in this new installment I actually experience it along with them. The first is a mystery, keeping some of the character development at a frustrating distance. Down Among is more of a slice of life (lives?), although lives which are more enthralling and magical than normal.

This book takes Jack and Jill and does more with them than I could have imagined. When we first meet them in Every Heart they clearly have a backstory, but certain aspects feel a bit forced. The reasons for their behavior become clear when we get to see them as full people, and not players in a mystery. Their lives before stumbling into a dark fantasy realm is enough to support an entire novel. Their parents are cruel, though not violent, and their relationship as sisters is fascinating. Then they stumble down a flight of stairs hidden in the bottom of a chest of clothing. The world the discover at the bottom is full of monsters, and would serve as a better basis for Universal’s new shared universe endeavor than The Mummy. The vampire and mad scientist that take them on as surrogate parents are incredibly effective at twisting, pulling, and exaggerating the issues already present between the sisters.

Likability aside, I understand and feel for the two of them through their story, which makes revisiting the first novel all the richer. Seanan McGuire is building something really special with this series. Jack, Jill, Nancy, and the rest of these wayward children are bringing a vulnerability and humanity to these fantasy worlds. If the first book set up the concept, using the firm structure of a mystery to hang it all upon, then she’s now moved on to exploring the darker details of the world she’s made.

Adam

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who’s sick of the white Christian male being America’s “default” setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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