A prequel of sorts to Every Heart a Doorway, this novella fills in the backstory of two of the wayward characters in that novel but while Every Heart… was a story about what happens after a more conventional fantasy, this novella is a more straight-forward portal fantasy/contemporary fairy tale.
Jack and Jill are two identical twins, raised by ambitious parents keen to force their children into distinct stereotypes of childhood. Jacqueline (never ‘Jack’) is expected to conform strictly to the role of dainty princess girl and Jillian (never ‘Jill’) to be a tomboy to compensate for the disappointment to their parents of not being a boy. These stifling roles are up-ended when the girls find themselves descending a magical staircase to a windswept moor. The moor is the heart of a world themed around classic horror tropes of the pre-war Universal movie kind. The twins find themselves leading separate lives, one as child heir to a vampire (complete with castle and frightened village) and the other an apprentice to a ‘mad’ scientist (complete with dissected body parts and spooky windmill).
Atmospheric rather than spooky, the story follows the themes of sibling rivalry and finding yourself growing into your own individuality. The first parts manage elements of Roald Dal like satirical misanthropy in the particular way that Jack & Jill’s parents are awful people. The prose flows with the kind of confidence you would expect from Seanan McGuire. It is a well-executed tale and like three other of the Hugo nominees for the novella, it is a story that feels neither too short nor too long for the novella format.
Still, this didn’t knock my socks off. It’s a nicely told backstory and a good addition to the wider set of stories.