“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”
Last year, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway accomplished something magical: it created a fantastical world laced with the hard truths of reality, a fairy tale that felt both timeless and immediate. For that, it garnered a Nebula Award, a Hugo nomination, and high expectations for the next book in the series. That companion novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, has arrived, and it is every bit as bewitching as its predecessor. You need not have read Every Heart a Doorway to fall in love with it, but your love will run all the deeper if you do. Both books are truly, illogically magical.
The first introduced Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a refuge for kids who were whisked away faraway places through wardrobes, down rabbit holes, or into the glass of enchanted mirrors—then, their adventures concluded, brought rudely crashing back to Earth, much changed, and not exactly fit for a humdrum life in modern society. It was at Eleanor West’s school that we met Jack and Jill, who traveled to and from a bleak world of death and pain—these are not the sanitized fairy tales of Disney, my friends—and there found truth, and a home they were willing to do anything to return to.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is Jack and Jill’s origin story. Born Jacqueline and Jillian, the twins are raised in hermetically sealed suburbia by indifferent, unloving parents who forced them to conform to ideas of what a child should be—rough-and-tumble Jillian was dad’s perfect tomboy, but dreamed of the pretty dresses and prim manners Jacqueline put on to please her mother. Jacqueline, poised in princess dresses and frills and bows, wanted only to play in the mud. Their shared envy of one another—and their competition for their parents’ reluctant approval—drove a rift through their childhoods.
But when Jack and Jill discover an old trunk containing secret stairs that lead impossibly down into a new world called The Moors, they discover the people they really want to be, and they learn that love might not be enough to save them.
In The Moors, we meet familiar monsters. There is a mysterious man known only as Master, who dines on dark red liquid, and little else. There is Dr. Bleak, who seeks to conquer death with science, and is in need of a good apprentice. The Master makes the girls first choose their dinners, and second, choose whether to stay with him or go with Dr. Bleak. But they can’t go together—only who can stay, and only one may go.
Jack chooses Dr. Bleak, and finally begins to explore her love of science. Jill becomes the princess in the Master’s castle. Jill wants very much to become like the Master, but must wait until she’s old enough that the doorway they came through will never return for her. Meanwhile, Jack and Dr. Bleak have successfully revived a dead girl, and Jack finds love awakening in the darkened rooms of her heart. But Jill is jealous of Jack’s love, and Jack is scared of what her sister is becoming. Can the twins find their way back to each other, or will their choices once again tear them apart?
We know what happens to them, if we’ve read Every Heart a Doorway, but this book’s greatest trick is that it doesn’t much matter. There is joy, and pain, to be found in the journey, the exploration of the broken and mending bonds between sisters as close as twins and as distant as bitter enemies. It’s a grim, heart-wrenching tale, leavened with beauty and poetry; dark as night, but never bleak.