Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian have parents who never expected the messy reality of having children. They only wanted to compete with their friends. The facade of perfection and fulfilling social expectations are their only motivations. Their mother has no idea how to care for them and calls in their Grandma Louise, who stays as their caregiver for years. The two girls are stuck into two randomly chosen roles: her mother expected Jacqueline to wear frilly dresses, be the proper girl, sit quietly, and stay out of trouble and dirt. Her father, who wanted a boy, expected Jill to be a tomboy with an affinity for sports and less stereotypically girly things. Louise tries to tell the girls to be whoever they want to be, but they feel competition with each other and suffocated by their parents' expectations. One day at twelve years old, they play together in the attic and find a door to another world with more opportunity and more darkness than they ever imagined.

These twins were first seen in Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of their lives before any doors and the world that Jill tried so hard to return to. The other world Jack and Jill travel to is called the Moors, which offers them a chance at a new life with a whole new set of problems. Jack (who was always Jacqueline) was jealous of her sister's freedom to be less feminine, get dirty, and run around. Jill was jealous of her sister's beautiful dresses, long hair, and refined nature. This jealousy keeps them from forming a true friendship and keeps them at odds. This new world gives them the chance to be who they truly want to be, but their relationship is no better. Jill chooses to stay with the Master, the cruel vampire ruler of the land, as his doll-like, pampered daughter. Jack chooses to become a mad scientist's apprentice, submitting herself to backbreaking work and science that would turn others' stomachs. Both girls' desire to go after their own interests whether it be stereotypically feminine or not is seen as completely valid. Especially in YA novels, there is a dismissive or outright hostile view towards feminine women and girls with an "I'm better than those other girls attitude." I'm so happy to see an author I especially respect giving validity to differing gender roles.

The latter part of the story focuses mostly on Jack, her coming of age, and her first love. She lives near a village of peasant people and loves every bit of her humble way of life. However, throughout everything, there's an undercurrent of threat. If someone offends her, they might suffer a painful, bloody fate at the hands of Jill or the Master. After one such incident, the people take care what they say around her and keep her at arms length. Everyone except for Alexis, who loves her deeply. They hide the extent of their relationship in public, but Alexis is the only person Jack can truly be herself with. Jill, on the other hand, aspires to become a vampire and be next in line to rule the Moors. Her heart withers until she becomes just as ruthless as the Master she is so obsessed with and views death as an amusement. Their journeys run parallel each other until they meet in a heartbreaking tragedy.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones isn't quite as good as Every Heart a Doorway, but it provides a context for the twins and their dynamic. It's a pretty short novella. Seanan McGuire imbues each page with such masterful writing and detail that it seems much longer. I am eager to read further stories in this series that allow us to get to know those memorable characters better.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

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