Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s novella Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second entry in her Wayward Children series, and a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway (which I reviewed here, and which won last year’s Hugo for Best Novella).  The twin sisters Jack and Jill Wolcott were two of the most intriguing – and least well-adjusted – children in the previous book, and now we get their backstory.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not pretty.

The story begins by relating their birth and childhood, raised (more or less) by parents far more interested in the idea of being parents to perfectly-behaved children than in the reality of nurturing actual human beings with their own opinion and desires.  Chester and Serena Wolcott are just horrible people, in an all-too-believable way – rather than the cartoonish cruelty typically exhibited by bad parents of fairy-tale children, the Wolcotts’ personalities are a toxic mixture of narcissism, entitlement, and shallow materialism, with just a soupcon of megalomania for flavor.  They are chilling figures in the story because of how realistic they feel; while their worst behaviors might be slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, I have heard far too many tales of emotionally abusive parents to be able to write them off as entirely fictional.

(As an aside: the portrayal of people hurting and abusing others by weaponizing human interactions and emotions is one of McGuire’s greatest strengths as an author.  Her antagonists are scary not because we’ve never seen their like before in our lives, but because we have.  It’s the same reaction that made Dolores Umbridge so much more frightening a villain than Voldemort.)

Jack and Jill’s existence effectively began as a ploy to improve the Wolcotts’ social standing and garner attention, and it went downhill from there.  They were raised by their grandmother – possibly the only positive parental-type figure they ever had – because their parents just couldn’t handle the realities of parenting newborns.  Or toddlers.  And yet, Chester and Serena manage to be as shitty to Chester’s mother as they are to their kids, treating her as a hired nanny rather than as family that they needed to ask for help.

So Jack and Jill’s childhoods are lived under the oppression of parental expectations without compassion or nurture.  When they find the doorway that allows them to escape to the Moors, an alternate world that feels something like the shared setting for every mad-scientist/monster/vampire movie you’ve ever seen, they think they have a chance to grow without the weight of their parents’ abuse.  And that’s true, to some extent – but the expectations placed on them by their new guardians are just as constricting, even if they’re better suited to Jack’s and Jill’s respective personalities.

Jack and Jill’s relationship as twin sisters informs the story just as much as their relationship to their parents and guardians, and while it is at times dysfunctional as well, the story draws a clear line between the “we don’t always get along, but we still care about each other” love between the sisters and the emotional abuse that passes for “love” from their parents.  The contrast between these two family dynamics makes up much of the heart of the story.  When the chips are down, who’s going to be there for you?  Who will support you and who will fail you?  That is the important thing in a relationship, and no amount of shared blood can make up for a failure to care.

I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Down Among the Sticks and Bones quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway.  But as a parent, the depiction of the Wolcotts’ miserable, narcissistic parenting was chilling.  It was a hard book for me to read because of how deeply angry I was at the horrendous conduct of these entirely fictional characters – and that speaks to how effective Seanan McGuire is at writing emotionally affecting characters and stories.  So while this certainly wasn’t my favorite novella of the year, I cannot deny that it is well deserving of the nomination.

My Best Novella rankings so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, S​eanan McGuire

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