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Literature / Down Among the Sticks and Bones

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a novel by Seanan McGuire. A follow-up to Every Heart a Doorway, it tells the story of twin sisters Jack and Jill and the world they visited before arriving at Eleanor West's boarding school.

Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott shared a materially comfortable but emotionally stifling childhood, raised by parents who forced them into rigid roles to suit their own fantasies of an ideal nuclear family. Jacqueline is required to be delicate, quiet, and perfectly dressed at all times, while Jillian is pressured to be competitive, high-achieving, and outgoing. At the age of twelve, the two girls discover a set of stairs inside an old trunk in their attic and descend into a strange and dangerous world. Jill becomes the ward of a vampire aristocrat who provides her with a life of luxury and ease in exchange for her blood. Jack becomes the apprentice of the local mad scientist, who requires her to live simply and work hard in exchange for knowledge and the chance to embrace her full potential. When the sisters meet again after years spent pursuing their very different paths, the ensuing clash may lead them to an ending that neither of them wants...


Tropes appearing in this work include:

  • Abusive Parents: Jack and Jill's parents treat them more like accessories and status symbols than human beings. The Master is no better; he emotionally manipulates Jill into total dependence on and obedience to him, murdering anyone who tries to befriend her so she'll have no one else, and was much the same with Mary, except it didn't quite work because she was warier, so he basically enslaved her instead.
  • The Apprentice: Jack pursues an apprenticeship with Dr. Bleak, an expert in the Moors' brand of science.
  • Bad Moon Rising: When Jack and Jill first arrive in the Moors, the first thing that tips them off to the dark and treacherous nature of this new world is an enormous, blood-red moon. It looks that way all the time and is regarded as an ambivalent deity by some of the Moors' inhabitants.
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  • Beneath the Mask: Every Heart A Doorway played up Jack's amorality and Mad Scientist antics, to the point where the only reason people thought she wasn't a Serial Killer was that she would have used the entire body. This book, on the other hand, shows that she is capable of love and passion and even kindness, before the Downer Ending of the book made her a lot colder.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Jack's girlfriend, Alexis, is described and illustrated as chubby. She's regarded as extraordinarily beautiful, enough so that her parents and the village feared that she'd be taken by the Master and were overjoyed once she was resurrected and thus made ineligible.
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: In addition to just not trusting the Master, this is why Jack chooses Dr. Bleak. She knows that 1) Jill can't be persuaded to leave, 2) she's better at being ornamental than Jill at this point, and so will show her up if they both stay in the castle, and 3) that means Jill will disappoint the Master, and she already has an inkling that the Master is cruel when he's disappointed. So Jack goes down and chooses her patron first, even knowing her sister will be hurt by being abandoned (and seemingly upstaged).
  • Came Back Wrong: People who undergo more than one death and resurrection are at high risk for this.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The Master's creepy possessiveness and inappropriate intimacy—he's specifically described as "wanting [Jill's] body", although in this case what he wants it for is blood—is eerily reminiscent of a sexually abusive parent. Mary's narration makes it even clearer; she came from an abusive home before she found her door, and she decided to stay with the Master because at least she already understood that kind of threat.
  • Downer Ending: The sisters are returned against their will to the world where they were born. Jill, who "never learned the art of thinking for herself", has given up her conscience in order to please the Master and has no idea how to live without him. Jack is grieving for her lover, Alexis, whom Dr. Bleak may or may not be able to resurrect.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Readers who have already read Every Heart a Doorway, which takes place after Down Among the Sticks and Bones but was published first, will already know that Jack and Jill will be forced to leave the Moors at the end of the book because Jill commits murder to impress the Master. We also know that Jill will be killed and Jack will take her to the Moors to resurrect her, which if it succeeds will prevent Jill from ever becoming a vampire.
  • Genius Loci: Dr. Bleak thinks of the Moors as "She", and for a while strongly suspects that the twins were chosen because She is getting tired of the Master, and wants Jack to kill him and Jill to succeed him. The second part is probably impossible (see Foregone Conclusion above), but the first is still up in the air.
  • Genre Blind: Jack and Jill at the beginning, since their parents' upbringings ensured that they weren't exposed to fairy tales, horror movies, or vampires. Jack eventually catches on, Jill doesn't.
  • Genre Savvy: Dr. Bleak explicitly thinks of Jack and Jill's lives as "a story becoming real in front of him" and recognizes himself as "the lesser villain of the piece - who was, by comparison, the unwitting hero". His attempt to put this awareness into practice and engineer a happier ending for the story doesn't go well.
  • Lawful Evil: In-universe (literally, as the Moors are high logic, high wicked). It's explained that the Master is a monster, but he's a rule-following monster. He always keeps his promises, and he will always make sure the other monsters on the Moors can't get anyone inside the walls of the town. In exchange, he (and whatever spawn he may have) can do whatever they want to the townsfolk. Which means that because Jill is human, the mob has the right to kill her for murdering Alexis. He can and will go on a larger-than-usual killing spree afterwards, which is one of the reasons Jack intercedes, but because Jill broke the rules he can't stop them in the first place.
  • Lightning Can Do Anything: Dr. Bleak and Jack harness lightning storms to raise the dead, and Dr. Bleak uses "bottled lightning" to open the door to Jack and Jill's world of origin.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Very downplayed, but this proves to be Alexis's downfall. She was so eager to see Jack that she didn't pay enough attention to her surroundings, letting Jill get the drop on her.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Bleak has all the stereotypical trappings of one, such as a lab filled with strange monsters preserved in jars and the ability to revive the dead using lightning, but on a personal level he actually seems fairly sane.
  • The Magic Versus Technology War: Dr. Bleak notes that his role as a mad scientist is to be a powerful human counterpart to the vampires and werewolves. Additionally, once you've been resurrected by lightning, you cannot become a vampire or werewolf; the process just doesn't work.
  • Menstrual Menace: Menstruating is dangerous in the Moors because the smell of blood attracts monsters. Jack invents a medicine which stops hers to protect herself; for Jill, who is already in service to a vampire, it isn't a problem.
  • Nature Vs Nurture: Deconstructed with a vengeance. Even at an early age Jack and Jill had signs of their later personalities, but their parents' attempts to force them into a Tomboy and Girly Girl set gave them long-lasting problems with expressing it.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: None of the monsters, be it the Master, the werewolf lord, or the monsters of the deep sea, will change an outsider permanently before they're 18. This isn't because they feel wrong about converting children (or at least the Master doesn't), but because there were dire consequences when they tried.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The Master has lived in the Moors for centuries.
  • Theme Twin Naming: Perhaps surprisingly, Jack and Jill's parents didn't do this on purpose. They never abbreviated their daughters' names in any way from Jacqueline and Jillian, considering nicknames to be undignified.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Played with. Jack and Jill have these roles forced upon them by their parents, with Jack as the girly girl and Jill as the tomboy. Neither of them is content with their imposed identity, and in the Moors their roles become somewhat reversed, with Jill as the elegant, vain aristocrat and Jack as the physically strong, practically dressed scientist.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The Moors laws of physics will actually spontaneously manifest these when a sufficiently angry mob forms. After Jill murders Alexis, a mob of villagers with said equipment chase her down in search of vengeance.
  • Überwald: The Moors are home to vampire overlords, doctors who revive deceased patients using Frankenstein-esque methods, and villages with walls to keep the werewolves out.
  • Vampire Wannabe: Jill wants to become a vampire so that she can live by her beloved Master's side forever, free from human vulnerabilities.
  • World Half Empty: The Moors is such a Death World that a lot of kids either die, or are so miserable that Doors open for them and they run away.

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