I was always going
to love Seanan McGuire's Down Among the Sticks and Bones
; what I didn't realise was quite how spectacularly good it was going and quite how much I was going to love it. Sharing a continuity with Every Heart a Doorway
, which really ought to be read first, McGuire's latest has a very, very different tone, channelling the spirit of every horror movie and gothic novel into a pitch-perfect but deeply subversive take on the genre.
When Chester and Serena Wolcott decide to have children, they know in advance exactly how their offspring are going to turn out: practically perfect in every way. So determined are they that the force their poor little twins, Jacqueline and Jillian — never to be referred to as Jack and Jill — into neat little straightjackets: Jacqueline is put in over-the-top dresses and admonished to keep herself clean, the better to impress Serena's friends; while Jillian is converted into a tomboy, all short hair and soccer practice, to help Chester win kudos with colleagues in his law firm.
Events take a turn when the girls discover stairs in a case of dressing-up things left behind by Chester's mother — the woman who babysat the two girls for the first years of their lives before being unceremoniously booted out by Chester, and who has now become a mere ghost of a memory of happiness to the twins. After talking each other into an adventure, the pair descend the stairs, finally finding themselves facing a door with an inscription carved above it: Be Sure. Despite being anything but sure, the two open the door and step through, only for it to vanish behind them.
Finding themselves in the brooding, menacing world of the Moors, they find a walled village where the local lord takes them in. After mentioning something about giving them sanctuary for three days — Jacqueline is astute enough to spot the tactic premise — the Master invites the twins to dinner where Jillian makes an apparently fateful choice of main course. Of such terrible, casual choices are the trajectories of lives forever altered in the world of the gothic and the girls find themselves parted: Jacqueline choosing to go and work with Dr Bleak, with Jillian remaining at the right hand of the Master.
The rest of the story follows the two twins as they grow up, one in a vampire's castle and the other in a mad scientist's laboratory, switching their outward roles, with Jack putting her dresses aside for men's clothes and heavy gloves and resurrections while Jill becomes a creature of swirly dresses and chokers and blood lettings.
The tone is, as already mentioned, absolutely spot-on — not all that surprising given Seanan McGuire's seemly boundless talents and vast knowledge of faery stories and gothic horror — combining a pinch of The Nightmare Before Christmas
with a smidgen of The Corpse Bride
and a whole host of imagination to produce something truly wonderful. The story is self-aware enough that Dr Bleak knows that he is only the hero because, as second villain to the Master, he is not a ravening monster.
Jack and Jill — and Jacqueline and Jillian — are beautifully drawn characters, damaged by their early life experiences at the hands of their appalling, emotionally abusive parents, who, when given the chance at freedom, seize it with both hands, even when their notions of freedom involve entail doing unspeakable things to corpses or joining the undead. It's also fascinating to the see the way the two, when freed from the expectations of their parents, more or less completely switch their gender presentation, but in way that never loses the true core elements of each of their personalities.
I've rather raved about Down Among the Sticks and Bones
, but it really is that good. It's every bit as good as Every Heart a Doorway
and that just won
the 2017 Locus Award for best novella.
Although I'd imagine it'd work as a standalone story, it's probably best to read Every Heart
first for an introduction to the characters — and to get familiar with the territory and to enjoy every slight slip the twins make in the first book when talking about their time in the Moors — and then wolf down the very different second story immediately after.