If you discovered a door to another world, would you go through it? What if it gave you the opportunity to change who you are, to escape the pressures of who you’re expected to be? Twelve-year-old twins Jack and Jill face these questions in Seanan McGuire’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This book, which came out back in June, is the second book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. (You can read my review of the first book here.) Rather than being a sequel to Every Heart a Doorway, however, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is more of a prequel that can also be read entirely as a stand-alone. Ostensibly a fantasy story about discovering a dark world full of monsters, the book is really a deep dive into questions of identity and family relationships.
Jacqueline and Jillian were born to parents who had kids for all the wrong reasons. More concerned appearances and the abstract idea of children, Mr. and Mrs. Wilcott try to groom their twin daughters to match the neat little pictures in their minds. When the girls are toddlers, it’s somewhat arbitrarily decided that Jillian is the sporty, tomboy one, thus making Jacqueline the girly perfect princess by default. As they grow older, the girls begin to chafe against these roles and resentment bubbles up between them as they envy each other. One day, a mysterious staircase appears in the attic where none existed before. At the bottom is a door, with the words “Be sure.” With nothing to lose, the two sisters step through. They arrive in a dark and gloomy world populated by vampires, werewolves, sea monsters, and the innocent villagers they prey upon. When Jack and Jill reach the village, they are given a choice: stay and be raised by the master vampire as his daughters or become an apprentice to the mad scientist outside the city walls. Jill chooses the life of luxury, glorying in the luxuriant dresses she never got to wear as a tomboy and learning how to be the perfect daughter to a vampire. Jack chooses the hard work of an apprentice, learning the gruesome trade of bringing the dead back to life. But as the girls grow up, Jack wonders if she made the wrong decision in leaving her sister behind.
You’ll have a very different experience depending on whether you read this book as a standalone or after finishing Every Heart a Doorway. In EHAD, we were introduced to a boarding school full of children who had traveled to another world and back. Jack and Jill are side characters in that tale, and their backstory is frequently alluded to. In DATSAB, we finally get to find out what exactly happened to them down in the Moors that made them the way they are. If you’ve read the first book, then you already know how DATSAB ends; the real surprise is how it begins. If you’re jumping in fresh, then you’re in for some unexpected twists and turns. If any of you try it this way, be sure to let me know your experience!
I think I enjoyed DATSAB even more than EHAD, because this book was extra heavy on the Gothic elements. Jack and Jill basically open a door into a Gothic novel—or rather, every Gothic novel combined. This fantastical land is called “the Moors,” recalling the iconic landscapes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Chief among its inhabitants are a vampire lord (much like Count Dracula) and a mad scientist (à la Victor Frankenstein). There are even mentions of “drowned gods” living beneath the sea, which possibly allude to the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Another thing I appreciated about this book was the nuanced and insightful depiction of the relationship between identical twin sisters. As a twin myself, this is not something that I see often in fiction. Usually, identical twins are depicted as being completely interchangeable with each other. Less commonly, they are made into caricatured polar opposites. In Gothic literature, in particular, twins usually serve a symbolic purpose as doppelgängers or representations of the opposite forces at war within a person. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire emphasizes the absurd amount of external pressure that gets put on twins from a young age. Jack and Jill are forced into particular roles because the people around them have this idea that within a set of twins, one must be “the pretty one” and one must be “the sporty one,” etc. But McGuire also takes care to show that each of the sisters is her own complex person, with a complex relationship to the other.
I could rant about what I loved about this book for several more pages (Excellent parenting advice! Frank discussions of sex and menstruation! Lesbian representation!), but I think if you want to know more you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Find Down Among the Sticks and Bones at your local bookstore, or buy it online and support The Gothic Library in the process by clicking on the affiliate link below.