Title Down Among the Sticks and Bones
Author Seanan McGuire
Series Wayward Children #2
Genre Fantasy, YA, Horror
Format Kindle Edition
Page Length 176
Publication Date 13 Jun 2017
First Read In Jun 2017
Rating 4.522565455 stars – Recommended
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
After reading Every Heart a Doorway I was desperate to know more about the worlds we were teased with. I was desperate to visit them in more detail than just a passing phrase or description. And that is what we get here! In EHaD we meet a number of Wayward Children. Two of those children are twins Jack and Jill.
“Jack and Jill went up the hill, to watch a bit of slaughter, Jack fell down and broke her crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”
Jack looked long=suffering. “I hate that rhyme.”
“And that’s not what happened at all,” said Jill.
Well, what did happen? I wanted to know what did happen. This is what did happen. This is Jack and Jill’s story, set before EHaD. Big smiley face on Stark!
This is a much darker story than EHaD, but it shares many of the aspects that I loved. This explores gender roles, norms and expectations throughout. During their early years in our world, Jacqueline is pushed into being the ‘girl’, with frilly dresses and bought dolls to play with etc. Jillian has her hair cut short and is encouraged to play in the dirt and other typical ‘boy’ things. This jarred me a little as I was used to the roles being the other way round as it is in EHaD. But that is the genius of Seanan McGuire. It was meant to jarr me. It was meant to keep me on my toes. It was meant to have me continuously questioning my own expectation of what Jack/Jill should look like in a scene based on my prejudices of who I had decided they should be. This was a really clever way of reminding us that everyone, even those of us that consider ourselves advocates for equality, will have prejudices that we should be mindful of. Bravo Seanan, bravo! *applauds in appreciation*
There is another message though, that felt like it was a little more forced. We also explore parenthood and childhood and the link between the two. There are very clear criticisms on ‘bad’ parenting. I would say that Jack and Jill’s parents are bad parents. They have children for the wrong reason, and then they try to raise them in the wrong way. Despite it being a clear message, with a little less… intellect… than the other messages Seanan writes, it remains an important one that many people can learn from.
All that above happens in the first 2.5 chapters though! This is something I am learning about Seanan’s writing. It contains so much without being overly wordy and 600+ pages.
The trouble with denying children the freedom to be themselves—with forcing them into an idea of what they should be, not allowing them to choose their own paths—is that all too often, the one drawing the design knows nothing of the desires of their model. Children are not formless clay, to be shaped according to the sculptor’s whim, nor are they blank but identical dolls, waiting to be slipped into the mode that suits them best. Give ten children a toy box, and watch them select ten different toys, regardless of gender or religion or parental expectations. Children have preferences. The danger comes when they, as with any human, are denied those preferences for too long.
When Jack and Jill find their door, and travel to their world, there is a clear (intentional) tonal shift. We go from following 2 girls being raised in an upper middle class home to a dark, brooding gothic tale of vampires, reanimators and dangerous moorlands full of monsters and werewolves. Jack and Jill end up being split up, one living with the Vampire Lord in his castle, the other living with a scientist that reanimates corpses in his laboratory windmill home. This is where we see the change in Jack and Jill’s characters to the familiar traits from EHaD.
I must say, during my first read through, the middle part of the story interested me less than in other parts. Several times I found myself having to go back to the start of the chapter because I would realise that I hadn’t really paid any attention to the last 5 pages. I found my mind wondering a little and I had to actively hold my concentration on the story. I reread this today in prep to write this review, and I found the same thing happened again.
The middle is not bad, per se, and it is not filler by any means, everything that happens plays a part in the larger plot. Both Jack and Jill grow affectionate feelings during these parts. Jill falls in love with a girl, Alexis. Jill is groomed by the Vampire Lord into becoming infatuated with him. This part felt rushed and Seanan states ‘there is more to this story’ but because we don’t have time we just skip ahead several months or years. Several times phrases like ‘Time passed’ are used. I get it that this was done to keep the story moving forward, and it’s not a story that could work over a time period of just a few days, but it ended up just pulling me out of the story a little. I’m reading a story because I don’t want to be in my real world. Don’t push me out of the fantasy. Especially one that is so fucking good! It ruined those moments for me. Not much, just a little.
It had all seemed like a game at first, her and the vampire in the high castle, him offering her whatever she wanted, while she laughed and refused everything but what she needed. It had seemed like a game. And then he had asked to be her new father, and asked her to be his child, to rule alongside him forever in fury and in blood.
I mentioned in my review of EHaD that it was not a story about diversity, but instead a story with a wonderfully diverse cast. There is less of that here. Which, because of the setting, there has to be. But I still wanted more diverse interesting characters than what I got. This has what feels like a much smaller cast of characters. The only people that really matter are Jack, Jill, Alexis, the Vampire Lord (although not much), the Doctor/Reanimator and maybe a servant from the castle. Which, when I think about it, is probably not much fewer than in EHaD, but this feels much more intimate. The focus is on Jack and Jill, and other characters are just supporting roles.
With that said though, Seanan continues to write in a way that I can only consume with great admiration (and maybe a little bit of envy). Jack and Jill are such interesting characters. They each have their quirks, and flaws. We get to know who they are very quickly. So much so that there wasn’t once where I questioned anything they did. They always did what felt right for them. I felt I connected with Jack a little more than with Jill. Both characters are deep, and complicated souls – just like real life people! I cared about them and their story.
We are given an idea of what Jack and Jill’s experience in their world was in EHaD. This fleshed that out in much more detail. Although we know what the ending will be (they travel through a door back to our world), we don’t know exactly why or how that happens. And that is what we are learning and reading for here. We are not reading for the ending, we are reading for the journey. This is marketed as a standalone from the same ‘universe’, and as much as I think it would work as a standalone, I would recommend to read EHaD first. It is so much more enjoyable as part of the series. It defines why Jack and Jill are who they are and why they behave the way they do in EHaD.
If you enjoyed book 1, or Seanan’s writing in general, you are going to enjoy this too. If I have to do that inevitable comparison of which book I like more in the series, then I would say that I enjoy EHaD more than this. But that doesn’t take away from how this is still a great read. A dark, gothic, modern classic with the mood of Dracula, and the fragility of Frankenstein.
Anyway, I’m off to separate frogspawn by minute colour shade. Until next time, Peace and Love.