The first novella in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series introduced us to identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian (or Jack and Jill, “…because our parents should never have been allowed to name their own children.”) The siblings were just two of the students at Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, a school and halfway home for those who once stepped through a doorway into some kind of fairyland, and who would now do anything to be able to go back.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is not the story about Eleanor West’s school. This is the story about how Jack and Jill ended up in fairyland in the first place.
There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. There are worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of those things.
The first book in the series gave us a tiny bit of information about Jack and Jill’s parents, how they had everything planned out for both what and who their daughters were going to be. The first quarter of this story shows us a lot more. Chester and Serena Wolcott desperately wanted to be admired as successful parents, but oh, if only being parents didn’t have to involve children.
Jill and Jack were quickly assigned to their respective roles as “little princess” and “tomboy”. One daughter was “the pretty one”, one daughter was “the smart one”. One sibling had frilly dresses and tea parties (with children who were carefully chosen according to their parents’ level in society), and the other had muddy shoes and short-clipped hair and soccer tryouts (successful ones, not up for debate).
Neither of them were to even dream of being anything else, and this is what pretty much locked the two girls into their future, even after they followed an impossible staircase into the Moors. Anyone who thinks that the parents simply mixed up their daughters’ assignments has missed the point; the problem wasn’t that Jacqueline should have been the tomboy and Jillian should have been the princess, the problem was that neither of them were allowed to choose at all.
The theme of being able to choose one’s own identity runs through the entire story. If Chester and Serena hadn’t tried to force their daughters to be mini versions of themselves (or how they saw themselves, anyway), then maybe Jack and Jill wouldn’t have jumped at the new lives being offered by a vampire and a mad scientist. What you’ve been denied your whole life has a way of becoming the most important thing in the world. And the really tragic thing is that you can’t even blame the worst outcomes in the story on one twin being “good” and one being “evil”, because it was pure chance that one of the people offering a new life turned out to be pretty decent, and the other one…wasn’t.
I’ll admit that as a twin I had more than a little interest in finding out what could make twin sisters turn against each other, and McGuire shows us each and every painful step in the process. I loved reading the parallel storylines of the twin-with-the-vampire and the twin-with-the-scientist (I’m trying not to give away too much of the story. That’s not obvious, is it?). And I especially enjoyed the bittersweet love story, and the haunting descriptions of a cold and beautiful castle, and a lonely windmill-laboratory out in the middle of nowhere.
If I have one quibble, it’s that this is being billed as a standalone story, and I just don’t agree. I feel like the reader wouldn’t have enough to go on without everything you learn about the fairytale doors in the first novella. And I definitely wouldn’t want to read this one before the previous story, since it practically gives away the entire mystery. So, if you want to read this story (which I highly recommend) then go read Every Heart a Doorway first; not a hardship since it won a Hugo award this year after all, and I imagine Down Among the Sticks and Bones has a good chance at the award next year.