“Down Among the Sticks and Bones” is Seanan McGuire’s brilliant, heart-rending prequel to her award-winning novella, “Every Heart a Doorway.” From the first novella, we know that children occasionally find doorways to fantasy worlds, enter, and leave their old lives behind for a while. After their adventures conclude some, but not all children, return to this world - often against their will. When they are torn from their fantasy worlds, they struggle.
The first novella focuses on the hardships that young adults have upon returning to this world. “Down Among the Sticks and Bones” takes us to a specific fantasy world, The Moors, “the single platonic ideal from which all other moors had been derived.” McGuire shows us why the characters Jack and Jill are so emotionally scarred from their time there.
Jacquelin and Jillian are twins who are not so much loved by their parents as molded into images by their parents. They grow up confused and lonely and uncertain of who they actually are. When they turn 12, the twins discover a long stairs in a trunk in their house. The stairs lead to a Land called the Moors. There they are taken in by the Master of a local castle and presented with a choice. They can stay with The Master and live in the comfort and finery of his castle or they can choose to live with Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist experimenting with occult powers to raise the dead.
This is a short, rich book, full of dangerous ideas and clever metaphors. The choice the girls make is a real choice, with dangerous consequences, and leads to a shocking conclusion. In between, McGuire leads us on a smart, hallucinatory tour of the Moors and slowly reveals some terrible secrets.
McGuire is a terrific writer. Open the book at random to any page and you’ll likely find some wonderful commentary. “Time in the Moors was not precisely like time in the world Jack and Jill had originally come from: it followed a different set of natural rules and did not map precisely to any other calendar. But a year was a year.”
The Moors is an evocative name - of gray skies and mists and supernatural creatures lurking on the edges of the land. The Moors are dangerous, and McGuire convinces me that the girls are in a state of dual peril; their lives and their souls are in jeopardy.
McGuire writes about identity and choices, death and second lives, growing up and longing for better parents, and the love and hate between siblings. This novella will surely be a popular nominee for the next round of fantasy awards. I’m ready for the third installment in the series, scheduled for January 2018.