Monday, February 15, 2021

Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Seanan McGuire

Title: Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 187 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 14, 2021
Finished: February 15, 2021

From the inside cover:

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 tomboy. 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 for a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

After Every Heart a Doorway, the subsequent instalments in this series tackle the backstories of different characters from the first book. Twin sisters Jack and Jill were a favourite of mine from the first book (and apparently everyone else's too), so it makes sense that the next book focuses on them. 

I love these dark fairy tales, if for nothing else then to remind ourselves that children are living beings with preferences and needs that we can't necessarily shape and mould as we will. Pretty much all the damage done (at least so far in these first two books), comes from forgetting this. 

Chester and Serena are probably the last people in the world who should be parents, but all the men at his firm have perfect sons, and all the women on her committees have the most idyllic daughters. How hard could it be? When Serena gives birth to twin girls, it throws a bit of a monkey wrench into their plans of getting the perfect family all at once, but they work with what they have. Jillian is more daring and outgoing, while Jacqueline is more cautious and observant, so Jill becomes the tomboy stand-in for the son Chester always wanted, and Jacqueline becomes the quiet and proper daughter Serena always wanted.

When the girls are twelve and hating the rigid roles that have been thrust upon them, a doorway opens up at the bottom of a trunk in a closet, and what twelve-year-old with little freedom can resist the promise of adventure? They find themselves in the Moors with werewolves in the forests and a blood-red moon in the sky. Two men offer to care for them during their stay there...which will they choose? 

This instalment is just as engaging as the first book, even though we're only focusing on one set of characters. Jack and Jill's story is a good one; dark, but not to the point where it could turn readers off. If anything, I'm finding I want more of these stories and wish they were full-length novels rather than short novellas, but they're still excellent as they are.

If you like dark fairy tales, give this series a try. I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of books 3 and 4 as we speak. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, similar to the first book, the landscape with the doorway as the central image is a good strategy to appeal to adult readers (this is not your usual YA cover) considering the cross-over potential. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Every Heart a Doorway - Seanan McGuire

Title: Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 169 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: February 10, 2021
Finished: February 12, 2021

From the inside cover:

Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children

No solicitations
No visitors
No quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions - slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells and emerging somewhere...else. 

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children. 

Nancy tumbled once, but now she's back. The things she's experienced...they change a person. The children under Miss West's care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world. 

But Nancy's arrival marks a change at the home. There's a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it's up to Nancy and and her newfound schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost. 

As we enter another year of pandemic restrictions and stress for anyone working in education right now, my pleasure reading choices have reverted to favourite genres that are personally comforting. And what better way to take someone out of their own head than a good portal fantasy. I always liked these types of books as a kid: Narnia, Wonderland (though my least favourite out of the bunch), Oz, Hogwarts, you name it I ate it up. As kids though, we never gave any thought to what happened to these characters when they went back, which this series explores nicely. 

When seventeen-year-old Nancy comes back through her door from the Underworld silent and devoid of colour, her desperate parents send her to Miss West's school in the hope of getting their happy little girl back. But like the other kids at the school, Nancy wants to find her door again so she can return to her real home. That is, if she can survive the rash of killings haunting the school since her arrival. 

This novella is a nice, quick read; but thanks to good, concise writing it isn't short on plot or development. The story introduces not just Nancy and her door, but several students and their fantasy worlds, all of them  engaging.

The author makes some clever observations that she works into the narrative, the following being my favourite, when Nancy asks why there are more girls than boys at the school:

"Because 'boys will be boys' is a self-fulfilling prophecy...They're too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It's not innate. It's learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women." (pg. 59)

And this one is from Miss West lecturing the children about supporting one another rather than treating each other as suspects, that could honestly be printed on the walls of classrooms everywhere:

"This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it's you. All of you. You are the guardians of the secrets of the universe, beloved of worlds that most will never dream of, much less see...can't you see where you owe it to yourselves to be kind? To care for one another? No one outside this room will ever understand what you've been through the way the people around you right now understand. This is not your home. I know that better than most. But this is your way station and your sanctuary, and you will treat those around you with respect." (pg. 100)

If you're in the mood for a short but very satisfying fantasy read, give this a go and then get the rest of the books in the series: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, In an Absent Dream, Juice Like Wounds, Come Tumbling Down, and Across the Green Grass Fields.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover with a landscape and the door as the central focus is nicely suited to the content and targeted audience. This type of cover is nicely consistent with the other books in the series, so they look great on a shelf.