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Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire4 stars
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Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novellas continue with a stand-alone tragedy that erases virtually every concern and gripe I had with its (admittedly widely acclaimed) maiden volume, Every Heart a Doorway. And while Down Among the Sticks and Bones doesn’t elevate my opinion of that story in specific terms, it does place many of the things that happen in its plot within the broader context of the series’ growing mythology. The motivations and deeds of two of Doorway’s key characters, the creepy, death-fixated twins Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill are shown in a much clearer light, as we see the metastory taking a more defined shape at last.

The most distinct improvement between the first volume and this one is in consistency of tone. Where Doorway had a hard time matching an appropriate tone to its content (off-kilter whimsy in moments of shocking violence, to give an example), Sticks and Bones is a marvel of precision craft. From satire to suspense to sweetness all the way to anguish and despair, McGuire places each note right where it belongs, bringing a flow to the narrative that draws full emotional investment out of the reader.

This is Jack and Jill’s story, the account of their adventure through their own private doorway into a fantasy realm, and how the experience shapes them. Knowing what befalls these characters in Every Heart a Doorway (and it’s reasonable to assume most readers coming to this tale will already be fans of the first) actually has the effect of boosting this story’s gravitas. McGuire opens with some blistering and very funny satire about the girls’ upbringing, as they are born to a pair of social climbing parents with upper-class aspirations, who measure their success against the material wealth of their peers, and think of having children as status symbols to boost their social capital. Jack is turned into a doting helicopter mom’s ideal of a proper young lady, while Jill becomes the tomboy of the pair, to make up for the boy her father wanted all along.

But one day, in the old bedroom of a grandmother who was allowed to raise them for a time (specifically, when their early childhood development was proving too fraught for their order-obsessed parents to want to bother with), the girls discover an old trunk with a stairway in it, inexplicably leading down into mysterious realms.

They emerge in a dark dreamland in which a village is lorded over by a vampire simply known as the Master. Taking refuge in the Master’s castle, the girls are eventually separated, when Jack chooses to go off and be apprentice to a kind of healer and scientist (he can resurrect the dead) named Dr. Bleak, and Jill stays with the Master for what she believes will be the pampered life of nobility. For years the two of them lead separate lives, until, once they have turned 17, events will unfold that bring them back together with great and terrible results.

McGuire covers a lot of themes in this story, and some of them from more than one angle. In the early chapters, the way in which adult society forces girls into limiting gender roles that stifle their choices is treated with droll satire. But later, the danger in conditioning children to please the expectations of their adult guardians rather than letting them grow up to discover their own path to personhood is given a much more sinister view. Love and loyalty, and the vast gulf between what you want and what you get in life, and finally, the choice you make when faced with personal sacrifice — all of these are challenges that Jack and Jill will have to face, and may not meet. Throughout, McGuire brings an emotional tension and sense of tragic, heart-wrenching inevitability to the story that wasn’t quite there in Doorway. Growing up is hard for most of us. This tale is an elegy for those who don’t survive the trip whole.

Followed by Beneath the Sugar Sky.