Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. ★★★★
While this is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, it can be read independently. This review will not contain spoilers for Every Heart a Doorway.
Jack and Jill’s parents think of their children mainly as accessories, the perfect additions to their lifestyle. They decide early on what each of their daughters “should” be and push them firmly in that direction, regardless of their daughters actual wishes. Jacqueline is supposed to be the girly-girl, always in pristine dresses. Jillian is supposed to be a tom-boy, the son her father wanted. Then at age twelve, Jack and Jill find a doorway to another world, one where they will have to make their own choices.
If you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway, you’ll know that the world Jack and Jill find isn’t a nice one. It’s a dark marshland, the setting out of a horror story, full of vampires, werewolves, and mad scientists. McGuire excellently crafts this setting, giving it an ethereal and creepy air. It’s not a comfortable place, but I enjoyed reading about it nonetheless.
“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.”
However, my favorite part of the book was actually before Jack and Jill went through the portal. I’m normally not down with books that start with the birth of the protagonists, but in this case it worked really well. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a book about childhood and parenting and choices. So the beginning was just as crucial and the portal section, as it showed the unintentionally damaging influence their parents were having on them. While I didn’t have anything like Jack or Jill’s childhood, I did grow up feeling like a certain path was being set out from me that just didn’t fit (my mom has this dream of me becoming a biologist and that’s so not happening). Anyway, for better or worse, it’s a story I could relate to.
The narrative of everybody telling you that you’re supposed to be a certain way when that’s just not who you are is probably familiar for a lot of people, but it definitely is familiar for queer people. And in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it’s not just subtext — Jack is queer and finds a girlfriend in the Marsh world. This fairy tale is never about queerness, but McGuire so powerfully captures the feeling of shaving bits of yourself off to fit in boxes other people design and how liberating it is when you finally step out of that box.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is powerful and moving. The writing is beautiful, and the narrative is wonderfully told. However, while the thematic explorations and writing alone were worth the ride, I’m not really sure what’s new about this novella. Every Heart A Doorway already gave us the broad strokes of Jack and Jill’s story, and Down Among the Sticks and Bones doesn’t depart from them in any notable way. It also doesn’t extend past Every Heart a Doorway, so we don’t know how they’re story continues.
Essentially, Down Among the Sticks and Bones feels like a fleshed out version of Jack’s tragic backstory. Uh, also I say “tragic backstory” and tagged it as LGBTQIA. You can probably put the two together, but Jack’s girlfriend dies. Maybe not permanently? It’s possible in this setting she could be brought back to life, but the chances are low and her fate is left ambiguous. So this story may not work well for a lot of queer readers.
I love Jack’s character, but I’m conflicted when it comes to Jill. If you read this novella, you’ll know why. She does some not so great things (that’s a huge understatement), but I was also getting seriously creepy child grooming vibes from this adult character who became her “guardian.” I also feel like I’m missing a step in her character development from when she was twelve to seventeen. I felt like there was a lot more focus on Jack’s development during that period.
Also in regard to Jill, Quartzen made some good points about how performance of femininity gets associated with evil. If you’re interested you can read her review and our discussion in the comments, so it’s not something I’m going to talk about here.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones gave me some complicated thoughts and feelings, but I never regretted reading it.