There are so many classic children’s stories about an ordinary child or two (or three or four) leaving the ordinary world through some extraordinary means (Alice down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, the Pevensies through the back of an ordinary seeming closet) and entering a strange and wonderful (or strange and frightening) place. Add to that collection Seanan McGuire’s new novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is sort of a prequel to her Nebula Award winning, Every Heart a Doorway. Don’t worry, though: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway in order to appreciate and enjoy the story of Jacqueline and Jillian and their sojourn in The Moors in this book.
It reads like a dark fairy tale, one in which the narrator inserts herself (a little) into the narrative, commenting dryly about the events she’s describing, and while that’s not always a technique that works for me personally, in this case the narrator’s wry observations add depth to the events and the characters.
The fairy tale begins with classic bad fairy tale parents, the sort who don’t deserve any children. They see their twin daughters as extensions of themselves, accessories to be paraded around before other couples in their social set, but not as human beings with their own needs and desires and thoughts. They’d originally decided they wanted a boy (for the father) and a girl (for the mother) but when the babies were born identical twin girls, they solved the “problem” by the father’s treating Jillian as a tomboy, making her, as much as he could, like the son he wished he had, and the mother’s turning Jacqueline into the little princess she saw as the ideal daughter. Jacqueline and Jillian managed to reach the age of five without permanent damage because their paternal grandmother, Louise, came to take care of them and give them all the nurturing their cold parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, but then, of course (in classic fairy tale bad parent fashion), the parents sent Louise away in the middle of the night, telling the girls she didn’t love them anymore.
Imprisoned in their rigid roles and not allowed to try any other aspects of their personalities, the twins drift apart, set up as competitors rather than companions, until the rainy day when Jillian entices Jacqueline to go upstairs and explore their grandmother’s former room in the attic, and the two of them (now twelve years old) find themselves going down a stairway inside their grandmother’s trunk, ending up in the strange and dangerous world of the Moors. There the two of them meet up with the Master, an impressive vampire who runs most of that part of the world, and Dr. Blast, a mad scientist type who’s able to bring the dead back to life, sometimes, and the girls make their choices of which one of them they want to apprentice themselves to for the rest of their time in the Moors (until the door reopens to allow them back into their world). Their choices are surprising, based on their prior lives and what you think their personalities are, but they come to embrace their new roles, as would-be daughter to the Master and as apprentice to Dr. Blast, to the point where neither one of them really wants to return to the “real world.” Until they are forced out, and I’m not going to tell you how they’re forced out of the Moors, except to say that it feels perfectly sensible, given what we’ve seen of the two characters and their world.
As a sort of fairy tale, there’s not a lot of in depth character development, but the charm of the book is in the world it creates and the people who populate it and how the fateful decisions and their consequences are depicted. It’s a dark and sad book in its way, and now I want to read Every Heart a Doorway to see what happened next to Jack and Jill.
Of course, if you’re doing the 2017 Reading Challenge, this (short!) book counts as a fantasy book for one of the categories. Just in case you couldn’t find another fantasy book (ha!). It’s well worth reading even if you’re not doing the challenge, of course.