Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is the second book in her adult urban, portal fantasy series, Wayward Children. I finished reading this sometime during the start of October and I loved every single thing about it.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones isn’t a direct sequel to Every Heart a Doorway, but more of a side story or prequel. It focuses on two characters from the first book, Jack and Jill, and the adventure that they had when they went through their door, all leading up to how they ended up at their location in book one. If this synopsis seems super vague to you that’s because it is in an effort to avoid providing major spoilers for either novel.
When I read Every Heart a Doorway, I enjoyed it quite a bit, bit I didn’t feel blown away by the story or characters like many others who had read the book. You can check out my full spoiler-free review for more details on what I liked and things I didn’t care for. However, in the second instalment, everything that I felt was lacking seemed to have completely disappeared. While there is plenty to gush about in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, my favourite facets include: the Queer romance, representation of having mysophobia, the setting and atmosphere, and the message about loneliness.
The story within the pages of this book is one of dark fantasy. Before the main characters go through their door, the lives that they lived was a wholeheartedly manufactured one for the entire purpose of maintaining a trophy-like existence. Each child was tailored to the superficial wants and desires of their respective parents (character A is moulded after the dad and character B is moulded after the mum). While the introduction is a basic fiction tale, it is dark, discomforting, and melancholy. Then the twins head through the door. The atmosphere and ambiance is inherently gritty and dusted with a thin layer of apprehension that made my skin crawl right from the get-go, mostly because I knew that there would be doom and gloom to arrive. If I wasn’t already invested in their plight and how their lives would unfold, I bloody hell was now that they were in a strange land with some suspicious as fuck beings.
I love dark fantasy and I love gritty, uncomfortable settings and situations. So, this instantly had me glued to the pages like a hungry child searching for candy. Toss in some identity crises that Jack and Jill began to have upon arriving to this new land, and I knew that the book would end up on my Best of 2018 list if executed well.
Because their lives were constantly dictated to them with severely strict rules of conduct and propriety, each person ended up being vastly estranged from one another. I’ve read many stories, and even seen it in real life with my own friends, where twins are depicted as being tied to the hip with similarities and affection for one another. To see the representation of two people who are exactly identical exhibiting such vast differences, including a severe distaste for one another’s existence was so refreshing and completely mesmerising. The cause-and-effect of the respective parents’ methods in raising their “chosen” clone, so to speak, was psychologically contemplative. I couldn’t help but constantly think of the nurture-versus-nature argument when it comes to children and mental health conditions whilst reading.
The trouble with denying children the freedom to be themselves—with forcing them into an idea of what they should be, not allowing them to choose their own paths—is that all too often, the one drawing the design knows nothing of the desires of their model.”
When these kids are finally free of their ridiculously constricting fetters, they are lost and go seeking direction. Through various encounters and circumstances, their own individuality finally takes route and the evolution of their personas, given the chance to bloom entirely on its own, was so beautiful. It felt awe-inspiring to watch each character find their footing and comfort levels with who they are as people, even if some of those identities were terribly twisted.
Another aspect I enjoyed experiencing was their fallibility due to how they were raised. For example, one of the characters develops horrible mysophobia (fear of germs) due to how they were never allowed to get dirty. Their hands are constantly wrapped in gloves and they go out of their way to ensure that they stay as clean as possible. The representation of this condition is my favourite part out of everything else that I loved about the book. I have mysophobia and I have never read anything that has represented this condition so accurately, particularly since mine also stems from a strict environment where getting dirty was quite unacceptable. Whenever they discussed their discomfort with it, especially the reasons behind why they felt so afraid of germs and how it impacted their life in ways they wished it didn’t, plus relative triggers—I almost teared up. I felt like I was reading through pages of my personal diary.
Lastly, the message about loneliness is exquisite. Loneliness can be a tremendously powerful emotion that can drive individuals to do to terribly drastic and irrevocable things, especially if someone is already suffering from any level of inferiority, abandonment, or jealousy. Seeing this play out in Down Among the Sticks and Bones was heart-breaking and emotionally enthralling, while also being very genuine. It’s woven subtly into the narrative from beginning to end, until it becomes less subtle and leads to a dramatic climax. This was the final string that held me so tightly to the book that when it ended, I was left feeling empty and longing.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a phenomenal follow-up to Every Heart a Doorway. If similarly to me, you weren’t too impressed with the first book in the series and are unsure about continuing, you most-definitely should. The writing is much more improved, the characters have such layers of depth with multiple messages, excellent diverse representation of a Queer romance between a fat girl and a gender non-conforming person, and a stronger cohesive flow from start to finish that I felt the first book lacked a little bit. I highly recommend this.