Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Microreview [book]: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

Like the truest fairy tales, it's not for children. It's for all of us.

One enters Down Among the Sticks and Bones with a sort of nervous anticipation. Every Heart a Doorway was practically perfect in every way (my review) and knowing that Seanan McGuire has written a second book in her Wayward Children setting was an unexpected treat. But, what if that second taste doesn't live up to the first? How can it?  The story of Every Heart a Doorway was complete and perfect.

So let's make this clear right from the start: Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a very different book from Every Heart a Doorway even though in a very technical sense, it is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of Jack and Jill, twins who were molded by their parents to be the exact sort of children the parents want and not provide the opportunity for Jacqueline and Jillian to grow into who they might want to be based on their own inclinations.

Seanan McGuire has tapped into something deep and raw and true in this novella because there is a lot of painful truth contained in Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them. A person may look at someone else's child and see only the surface, the shiny shoes or the perfect curls. They do not see the tears and the tantrums, the late nights, the sleepless hours, the worry. They do not even see the love, not really.
Perhaps some of it is obvious, especially given that the parents are oblivious to their children being actual people and not extensions of their own dreams and desires, but isn't that what life is too often like? The opening chapters of Down Among the Sticks and Bones present quite a bit like some of the children's books I read when I was younger where the over the top obliviousness of the parents are one of the obstacles to their kids doing whatever it is they need to do. It works.

That's not exactly the story McGuire is telling here because just as soon as Jack and Jill are old enough to truly seek an escape they don't realize they are looking for, they open a trunk in the attic and rather than find old clothes, they instead find a stairway descending into darkness.
Had Gemma Lou been allowed to stay with them, they might have read more fairy tales, might have heard more stories about children who opened doors to one place and found themselves stepping through into another. Had they been allowed to grow according to their own path, to follow their own interests, they might have met Alice, and Peter, and Dorothy, all the children who had strayed from the path and found themselves lost in someone else's fairyland [...] and so, unbelievable as it might seem, Jacqueline and Jillian had never been exposed to the question of what might be lurking behind a door that wasn't supposed to be there.
It is here where McGuire begins to play with the concept of the portal fantasy. Oh, yes, she absolutely did that with Every Heart a Doorway when she answered the question of what happens when you return to the "real world" which will never feel like home again. With Down Among the Sticks and Bones McGuire tells the story of twins who are only just finding that true home on the other side of the doorway. It is nothing like they, or we as readers, expected.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is soaked with blood and science and alienation and brutal acceptance. The novella turns into a starker, darker, and more painful story once Jacqueline and Jillian travel down those stairs and step through a doorway with a sign stating "Be Sure".

The only ones actually sure are the readers that yes, this is absolutely a door we want to enter and a journey we want to embark on.  Down Among the Sticks and Bones is not soaked with that same nostalgia as Every Heart a Doorway. It's not supposed to be, though I admit it is difficult to talk at all about this novella without also thinking about the one. Every Heart a Doorway tells the story of what happens when the fairy tale is over. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of the fairy tale itself. Like the truest fairy tales, it's not for children. It's for all of us.

The Math 
Baseline Assessment: 9/10 

Bonuses: +1 for telling a significantly distinct story from Every Heart a Doorway despite my inability to stop talking about both novellas at the same time.

Penalties: -1 because the opening chapters of the parents can sometimes feel entirely separate from the rest of the novella.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 
See more about our scoring system here

Reference: McGuire, Seanan. Down Among the Sticks and Bones [Tor.com Publishing, 2017]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.