Hugo reading 2018: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is essentially a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. It tells the story of Jack and Jill and why they went through their door, and what happened when they did.  Their world had vampires and werewolves and mad scientists, and definitely falls into a horror sort of genre – it’s a fairy tale, and told like one, but it’s a dark one.

I actually bought and read this when it was first published, and wasn’t especially taken with it.  I enjoyed it more on this reading, partly, perhaps, because it was a nice change from all the science fiction.  McGuire does some interesting things with family, and gender, and how we are shaped by the roles we are put into (and what happens when we are given a chance at a different role).

One thing that I found kept grabbing my attention when reading this book (on both occasions) was the way Jack and Jill presented.  They are identical twin girls, and we meet them in Doorway, Jack dresses in a very masculine style, and has male mannerisms.  He is also the scientist of the group.  Jill, on the other hand, is a very girly-girl, and while she clearly has plenty of brains, she tends to pretend she isn’t using them. But at the start of the book, it’s little Jillian who is the bold, curious twin who gets pushed into the tomboy role and plays soccer and runs around, while the more timid, quiet Jacqueline is the ‘pretty’ twin, who wears beautiful dresses that she isn’t allowed to get dirty, and plays with dolls.  It’s clear that, once through the doorway, each child takes the opportunity to be someone different, but having seen them in such strongly gendered roles in Doorway, I kept getting confused and having to remind myself which was which in Sticks and Bones.  This is probably mostly a reflection on how I view gender…

I enjoy McGuire’s writing, and the way she convincingly relates the fantastical to the mundane.  For example, here is the vampire seducing Jill:

He is not so different from the boys she had been dreading meeting when she started her high school career. Like them, he wants her for her body. Like them, he is bigger than her, stronger than her, more powerful than her in a thousand ways. But unlike them, he tells her no lies, puts no veils before his intentions; he is hungry, and she is meat for his table, she is wine for his cup.

Creepy as hell, and not just because he is a vampire.

I don’t quite know how to write usefully about this novella.  I don’t think it’s McGuire’s most successful work, but I do think it’s good.  I don’t think it’s quite up there with the brilliance of And Then There Were (N-One), but I definitely rank it above the hippos.  We’ll have to see what else is in this category.

(Oh, and one last thing: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway to enjoy the Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but I think if you read Sticks and Bones first, then certain things in Doorway are going to be… fairly unsurprising.  In other words, read this one second.)

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