Review: Down Among the Sticks & Bones (Novella) Seanan McGuire

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.

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25 thoughts on “Review: Down Among the Sticks & Bones (Novella) Seanan McGuire”

  1. I got round to reading this a few days ago. It was one of those stories that I thought was very cleverly written without necessarily liking it.

    Something I found disconcerting was the way that the children’s very real issues were portrayed as stemming from their almost cartoonish parents. Looking at it as Roald Dahl-esque makes a bit more sense though.

    The element I’d have liked to see explored more was the idea that the villagers relationship with the vampire lord was ambiguous and almost symbiotic. There were some interesting things to be said about human nature there.

    Decent but doesn’t disturb Murderbot or N-1 at the top of my ballot.

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    1. I agree with the cartoonish-ness of the parents being a problem. It’s like Jack and Jills origin-world is is in itself a fairy tale world with cliché Evil Parents, rather than the “real” world we know. But maybe that was the point and the problem is me having wrong expectations.

      I think what bugged me most with the parents was that the grandmother is portrayed as a sensible person who is good with children – but we get no explanation for how her son turned out such an idiot.

      Good, but below Murderbot and Murdersarah.

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      1. Murderbot is invincible here, but I’m sure Sarah beats Murderbot somewhere in the multiverse.

        I’m not sure where that place lies on the nonsense/logic-wickedness/virtue-chart of worlds, though.

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    1. I likke the idea and the prose of the wayward children more than the actual first two stories. Tht did change hoiwever with part 3, which seems to finally use the potential of the setting.

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  2. Everything of McGuire’s I’ve read has been essentially competent but ultimately quite dull. I remain baffled by the love that the Hugo-voting crowd seem to have for her.

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    1. KasaObake: I remain baffled by the love that the Hugo-voting crowd seem to have for her.

      McGuire spent years in fandom, especially in the filking community, before getting published in 2009. She has a very large, loyal fanbase from that. She’s also an extremely charismatic and witty person in person (as well as unbelievably intelligent).

      Do I think everything of hers which has been Hugo-nominated was what I consider to be Hugo-quality? No, but a lot of it has been, and I don’t find it dull. And she does a good job of catering to different fandom sweet spots with her various universes.

      There are a lot of different sweet spots in fandom. Much like how I don’t understand all the love for Kim Stanley Robinson — and yet plenty of fans have it, even though I think that he couldn’t write a well-rounded, believable character even if you took all of his cardboard away from him. Likewise, I don’t “get” the immense appeal of China Miéville’s or Ian McDonald’s books. I mostly love Connie Willis, but a sizeable number of fans can’t abide her stories.

      In any given year, I only agree with 25-35% of what’s on the Hugo Ballot. I think that’s probably the case for a lot of people. I figure that if I agree with a third of it, I’ve been well-represented.

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      1. Mark-kitteh, take my advice, and make sure that you have a back-up book with you, preferably one you’re pretty sure that you’ll enjoy in case you bounce off the KSR.

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      2. Well, the lecture to camera on post-flood financial markets wasn’t as riveting as KSR was clearly hoping for. (And I actually find economics interesting, so that’s a fail). I’ll read a bit more on the way back but right now I’m getting a Way of Kings vibe – it’s expecting me to persevere through a lot of different POV chapters on the promise that the story will coalesce at some point.

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      3. I pretty much class her as similar to Scalzi or Dr Who. Large and devoted fanbase who love her work and her personality etc. I just mostly don’t get it. Which is fine. I also don’t get 99.99998% of music in the charts or why people keep torturing themselves with Michael Bay films.

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