Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Publication date: 13 July 2017
Genre: Adult fantasy/horror
Page count: 192 pages
Rating: 1.5 out 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review for Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but contains major spoilers for Every Heart a Doorway. I highly suggest you skip this review if you haven’t read Every Heart a Doorway yet.
If you have seen my review of the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway, you’ll know that I absolutely loved it — I thought it was perfection. So I naturally had high expectations Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the second book in the series. It features more of the weird and wonderful worlds McGuire created in the first book. It tells the back story of two of my favourite students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is ‘a lot’. A lot could go wrong, and a lot did go wrong with this book. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is not only the most disappointing book of 2018 so far, it’s the most disappointing book I’ve read in years. I finished reading it and couldn’t help but wonder what the fuck happened to what promised to be my favourite series of all time.
Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
This is the story of what happened first…
Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.
Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.
They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.
They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.
I think that as with The Hazel Wood, my expectations for what this book should have been ended up influencing my opinion. Having read and adored the first book in this series, I expected more of the same magic and wonder we got in Every Heart a Doorway. Instead, we got stilted writing, 60+ pages of completely boring background (which to be fair, the book is 192 pages long. That’s a lot of pages dedicated to uninteresting background information), an underwhelming examination of what were once fascinating characters, and a painfully boring plot.
My main issue with Down Among the Sticks and Bones is that nothing really happens. What we get is the upbringing of Jack and Jill, or Jacqueline and Jillian as they should be called, and what happened to them before they ended up in Eleanor West’s care. This should have been fascinating, it should have been a brilliant examination of complex women, but it fell so short. We know that they grew up in this horrible home with horrible parents that wedged them into neat and tidy roles. We know that they went to the Moors and ended up splitting apart, with Jack going with a mad scientist and Jill staying with The Master. We know that they ended up swapping their tomboy and ultra-feminine personas and were finally free of adult expectations. We know that Jill ends up going bad. We know all of this. So why did we need an entire book explaining exactly what we already knew about these characters? I just don’t see how this book was necessary. McGuire had the opportunity to do something really fantastic with their story and for whatever reason decided not to. Emma from Howl’s Moving Library put it best when we chatted about the book on Twitter – she said it felt like a writing exercise based on the first book, and I couldn’t agree more. This book reads like fan fiction in the worst way. We gain so little insight into Jack and Jill’s story and their time on the Moors. Where Every Heart a Doorway does marvellous things with plot and character development in fewer than 200 pages, Down Among the Sticks and Bones does the opposite.
Jack and Jill were among my favourite characters in the first book, particularly Jack. I found them so fascinating and fun to read about. I loved the fact that they swapped roles when they got to the Moors and were finally allowed to be themselves. I love that they defied expectations and felt so unique. However, something just didn’t translate in this book. They’re not shiny and new characters – we already know what they become and what Jill does in order to return to the life she had. Rather than a deeper dive into the complexities of their personalities and relationship, we get a very flat and uninteresting view of them. They just didn’t come to life in the same way as the first book — it was almost as though someone else wrote them. In fact, if the first book simply didn’t exist and Down Among the Sticks and Bones was our introduction to these characters, it would have been so much better. Not perfect, but better.
While the plot did eventually pick up a little and become slightly more compelling, I just felt like it was too little too late. And most bothersome, this book suffers from one of the most harmful tropes concerning LGBTQ+ characters, which is shocking considering how inclusive and lovely Every Heart a Doorway was. Simply put, the magic from Every Heart a Doorway was gone in Down Among the Sticks and Bones. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am, and I feel like I am taking this very personally. I am going to continue the series, as they are companion novels rather than direct sequels (or prequels, as is the case with this one). However I am much less optimistic about McGuire’s writing and characterisation. Was Every Heart a Doorway a fluke? We’ll soon find out.
If you’d like to give Down Among the Sticks and Bones a try, you can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):