Why You Need to Read: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Wayward Children, #2: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: June 13, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: ALA Alex Award 2018, ALA RUSA Fantasy Award 2018

            It did not occur to Jill that Jack’s avoidance, like her own, had been born purely of parental desire and never of a sincere wanting. Their parents had done everything they could to blur the lines of twinhood, leaving Jack and Jill stuck in the middle, (6: The First Night of Safety). 

            Series of any kind—books, movies, TV shows (including anime), video games, etc.—remain intriguing. One of the many reasons series continue to fascinate everyone is due to the ways the elements—the story, the characters, the setting, etc.—keep us immersed within them. Another reason is because of the creators of these series. They have to come up with creative ways not only to keep our interest, but also find ways to make us want more from them. Not to mention, some of the creators find ways to expand on their world through their series. Series are not limited to any genre or any format, but it seems speculative fiction captivates our expectations when it comes to using series to expand on everyone’s desires, especially the creators’. And, series can be presented to the audience in any order the creator wants to present them. Seanan McGuire is such an author who presents her Wayward Children series across moments in time. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in the series, which takes place before the events in its predecessor, Every Heart A Doorway

            The protagonists in this story are Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott—also known as, and preferred to be called, Jack and Jill—identical twins with different personalities yet similar demeanors. Both girls had the unfortunate luck of being born to Chester and Serena Wolcott who believe having children would move them up the social ladder (and yes, such adults still exist, sadly). The parents take this notion to extreme levels by forcing their daughters into roles of binary femininity—the girly-girl, Jack; and, the tomboy, Jill. Unfortunately for the twins, the style of parenting forced upon them not only messes up their idea of what femininity is, but also causes a crescendo of sibling rivalry instead of sisterhood. Jacqueline, who always wore dresses she could never get dirty, wants to prove she knows more than what others let on—which she does. Jillian, who cannot decide whether or not her short hair and her boyish clothes make her a freak, wants nothing more than to have any sort of affection from anybody—which she deserves. It comes as no surprise their Door leads to the Moors, a place which reminds travelers of black-and-white monster movies (where monsters are “born”). Once there, the twins are separated—physically—for the first time, and will remain that way for the next 5 years, through most of their adolescence. Jack goes with Dr. Bleak to become his apprentice, which allows her to learn everything she could ever want; and, Jill goes with the Master—a real monster—who showers her with all of the affection and the attention she always craved. As the twins grow apart with their new parental figures, it comes as no surprise Jack and Jill develop a spectrum of psychopathic behavior, one way more extreme than the other. 

            The plot of this story revolves around the birth, the upbringings—remember, they each had 2—and the growth of the twins into what they become by their 17th birthday. Yes, the Moors cemented Jack and Jill into monsters; but, one could argue their parents put them on that path before their Door appeared. There are two subplots which develop alongside the plot and are essential to the story. The first subplot follows how the twins gain separate identities, something that was denied to them by their parents, but explored in the Moors. The second subplot delves into types of parenting, especially toxic parenting. There are 5 adults who “parent” Jack and Jill, and 3 of them would be labeled as “toxic.” These subplots and the plot are important to the story because readers get an understanding of the nurturing the twins endured throughout their entire childhood. Keeping this in mind, while Jack and Jill are not responsible for their adult role models, they are responsible for their decisions and their actions.

            The narrative in this novella isn’t a flashback, but a look into the past. The points-of-view is 3rd person omniscient, or a narration which moves between the P.O.V.s of multiple (main) characters. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first characters readers are introduced to are Jack and Jill’s parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Readers learn the reason why they decided to have children, why their parenting methods are viewed as “toxic,” and their “reactions” to their daughters’ disappearance and their return. Due to the narrative styles used in this book, the characters’ P.O.V.s are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness. In this case, the readers are able to empathize with (most of) the characters, especially Jack and Jill. This narration is straightforward and engrossing. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Down Among the Sticks and Bones can be argued as becoming “the villain.” I’m NOT an expert in psychology, but it has been mentioned by several experts that neglected and abused children often crave love and affection and are willing to do just about anything to get it. However, if those parents and/or adult role models are “toxic,” or are “parents who inflict ongoing trauma, abuse, and denigration on their children,” (Forward and Buck, 12). The author’s use of specific moments Chester and Serena and the Master inflicted the identities and the roles they wanted onto their daughters—throwing away gifts from Gemma Lou, murdering playmates, etc.—foreshadows the behaviors (i.e. Obsession Compulsive Disorder, or OCD) and the traits (i.e. eager-to-please) the twins will exhibit in the future. This story is NOT a parenting book, but a cautionary tale of children and how they are individuals, and NOT blank slates to force into a role of the adults’ choosing. The mood in this story is duality. Jacqueline and Jillian are identical twins—who are nicknamed after the nursery rhyme by everyone but their parents—who are forced into the false binary roles of femininity—girly and tomboy—by their parents, who are brought up separately in the Moors later on by 2 new “role models” as the mad scientist’s apprentice and the vampire’s daughter—two of the most notorious “monsters” in literature. This book is the first in the series to include illustrations—by the talented Rovina Cai—and they present the moments of “love” the twins experienced during their stay at the Moors. 

            The appeal for this book have been positive. It was nominated for the same literary awards as its predecessor. Yet, it was the American Library Association, or the ALA, who gave this novella its accolades winning both the Alex Award—given to 10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18—and, the ALA RUSA Award—an annual best-of-list comprised of 8 different fiction genres for adult readers—in Fantasy. These awards—given by librarians—demonstrate readers of most ages can read and appreciate this book. And, while this book takes place before the events of Every Heart A Doorway, you should read that book before reading this one. That way readers won’t get confused about the book’s context. After learning about the world Jack and Jill traveled to, who wouldn’t want to learn what happens in the next book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky?

            Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an engrossing follow up to its predecessor. Readers get a look into how the twins lived before finding their Door and living in a new world who embraced them for better and for worse. Seanan McGuire uses duality in order to give readers the beauty and the horror in everything from gender identity to parental figures. Which world will we travel to next?

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                            List of Works Cited

Forward, Susan, and Craig Buck. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.

e- book, Bantam, 2009. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “Gideon the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb #1: Gideon the Ninth

By: Tasmyn Muir                                                                   Audiobook: 16 hours 50 minutes

Published: September 10, 2019                                              Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Gothic

            When as a young and disinclined member of the Locked Tomb Gideon had painted her face, she had gone for the bare minimum of death’s-head that the role demanded: dark around the eyes, a bit around the nose, a slack black slash across the lips. Now as Harrowhark gave her a little palm of cracked mirror, she saw that she was painted like the ancient, tottering necromancers of the House: those ghastly and unsettling sages who never seemed to die, just disappear into the long galleries of books and coffins beneath Drearburh. She’d been slapped up to look like a grim-toothed, black-socketed skull, with big black holes on each side of the mandible.

            Gideon said drearily, “I look like a douche,” (5). 

            Hype and marketing for a book is an interesting feat some people find themselves in. Publishers and bookstores—usually through marketers—are paid to advertise such books for sale. Librarians read these books in order to determine whether or not the book(s) are “appropriate for their library and/or community.” And, reviewers—including book critics and bookbloggers—read these books and give an opinion on why each book should or should not be read. There are moments when reviews are controversial because they don’t match with the public’s opinion or the hype surrounding the book. That’s not to say that the book is “bad” or written poorly, but it didn’t meet the expectations of the reader. For me, this is what I felt while reading/listening to Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

            The protagonist is eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav, an indentured servant of the Ninth House, who are the Keepers of the Locked Tomb. Gideon’s life at the Ninth House has been nothing but harsh, neglectful, and mysterious. Readers meet Gideon as she tries to leave the Ninth House for the 33rd time. Instead, Gideon is bribed by Harrowhark Nonagesimus—the daughter and heir to the House of the Ninth—to train to be her cavalier so that she can train to become a Lyctor, one of the Imperial Saints for the Emperor. Gideon is promised her freedom if she does this “for the Ninth,” so Gideon and Harrow travel to the House of the First to train and to serve. There Gideon meets and interacts with: Teacher—one of the Keepers of the First House and servant to the Necrolord Heights; Abigail Pent and her cavalier, Magnus Quinn, of the Fifth House; Coronabeth Tridentarius and her cavalier, Protesilaus Eldoma, of the Seventh House; and several other heirs and their cavaliers from the other Houses, and a lot of skeletons. Gideon—while reluctant to serve the Ninth House—does take advantage of being away from the only place she’s known, leaves the planet, and trains in swordsmanship. Gideon does have to follow Harrowhark’s orders—to an extent—but, through her interactions with the other Houses and the tasks she manages to complete with Harrow, Gideon grows into the person she wants to be without interference from the Ninth House: helpful, caring, and strong (in a fight). Meanwhile, the other Houses learn that there’s more to the Ninth House than its titular role. 

            The plot of the novel is straightforward: The Emperor (of the First House) has called for the heirs of the other eight Houses to train to be Lyctors in order to serve as replacements for the current Lyctors. So, each heir and their cavalier travel to the First House where they are trained and are tested to the best of their knowledge and their strength. The nominated Hands must figure out the “puzzle” of their House with their cavalier so that the Hand can become a Lyctor. All of this is easier said than done, but all of the Hands are willing to do it. There are a few subplots in this novel. The first surrounds what it takes and what it means to be a Lyctor. Harrow wants to become one, and she is an extremely talented necromancer, but the testing to become a Lyctor is a process that must be solved by the Hand and the cavalier working together. This is interesting because Gideon and Harrowhark do NOT get along. So, in order to get what they both want, they’ll have to put up with each other to accomplish the goal. The second subplot is the mystery of the Ninth House and its establishment, from the Locked Tomb to the childhoods of both Gideon and Harrow. The other Houses are more curious by this than Gideon is, but Gideon doesn’t know, and Harrow isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Or, will she? The last subplot focuses on the strange occurrences that begin to happen to the Hands and their cavaliers. Everyone is interested in new recruits arriving at the First House, right? All of these subplots work alongside the plot of the novel in order to embellish the world, the characters and the current predicament within this novel. 

            The narrative in Gideon the Ninth follows a present sequence from Gideon’s point-of-view. Her stream-of-consciousness gives readers insight into her thoughts (cynical, yet curious) while learning about the other eight Houses, which is something that didn’t interest her until now. The world-building—which includes the history and the culture of each House—comes from Gideon’s learning of them. The fight sequences and the many revelations come from Gideon’s P.O.V. Some of what is presented to her is told as a recitation and not as a flashback. This means that Gideon’s reactions are genuine and relatable, which make her a reliable narrator. The narrative is intriguing and is easy to follow. 

            The style Tasmyn Muir uses in her debut novel follows Gothic romance. In short—and, according to A Glossary of Literary Terms—“The locale was often a gloomy castle furnished with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels; the typical story focused on the sufferings imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences,” (p. 151). Fans of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë are familiar with this genre of literature. However, I’m saying that Gideon the Ninth has elements of a gothic novel, NOT that it is one! The “villain” isn’t lustful, the supernatural occurrences—necromancy—is part of the world, and while it does have dungeons and secret passages, the First House isn’t described as being gloomy (when compared to the Ninth House). These gothic elements enhance the story the author is telling, which she does very well. The mood in this novel is anticipation. The summons from the First House does not only contain orders to attend, but also a chance to serve the Emperor, which is something the heirs are taught to do from childhood; and, their cavaliers get to serve their Houses. The tone in this book is dread. In a world where necromancy is the magic used and the setting is gothic, readers should expect more than a few unpleasant things to occur throughout the narrative. 

            I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Moira Quirk. She does a great job with narrating the story, voicing the various characters, and with the pronunciation of the characters’ names. I would not have been able to pronounce ANY of those names on my own, so to say that the audiobook was a huge help would be an understatement. The narration kept me engaged with the story as well.

            The appeal for Gideon the Ninth have been positive. Not only has the book, and the author, received a lot of fan and critical acclaim, but also has been nominated for several awards including the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. I can see how this book can become part of the (dark) fantasy canon and how it will have lasting appeal. However, this book neither was worth the hype nor was the best debut novel I’ve read. I’m not the only bookblogger who feels this way about this book. Then again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read it. The story itself kept my interest to the end; enough so that I want to read the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, when it is released in September 2020. This book wasn’t my favorite one, but my interest is piqued to where I’m okay with rereading parts of Gideon the Ninth in order to understand the sequel.

            Gideon the Ninth is an ambitious debut which hits enough marks to make for a good and fun reading experience. While I did not enjoy this book as much as other bookbloggers, the story and the world intrigued me enough to finish this book and wanting to read the sequel. Please understand that just because I didn’t enjoy this book doesn’t mean that you’ll feel the same way. That being said, if you want to read a story about necromancers and sword fighting, with gothic elements, then this book is for you.

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Works Cited 

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed., Wadsworth, 

            2012.