It is not hard, after all, to be sucked up by a tornado or pushed through a particularly porous mirror; there is no skill involved in being swept away by a great wave or pulled down a rabbit hole. Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.
Other adventures must be committed to before they have even properly begun. How else will they know the worthy from the unworthy, if they do not require a certain amount of effort on the part of the ones who would undertake them? Some adventures are cruel, because it is the only way they know to be kind.
Portal fantasy is among my favorite things, and Seanan McGuire excels at creating new realms. This book was just as good as Every Heart a Doorway, and yet managed to be completely different in tone and the method in which the story was told. This is the story of Jack and Jill, the identical twins from Every Heart a Doorway, before they were cast back through their door and relegated to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. The novella can be viewed as a prequel or a standalone story in the same series. It should most certainly be read, because it has much to say in its less-than-two-hundred pages.
Jaqueline and Jillian Wolcott are twin girls borne to selfish, self-absorbed parents, who decided to reproduce merely for the attention offspring would bring them. The girls were never viewed as actual people, individuals who might have their own thoughts and dreams and desires. As someone who can’t physically have children, the quote below felt like it came from my own soul:
There are people in this world—good, honest, hard-working people—who want nothing more than to have a baby, and who try for years to conceive one without the slightest success. There are people who must see doctors in small, sterile rooms, hearing terrifying proclamations about how much it will cost to even begin hoping. There are people who must go on quests, chasing down the north wind to ask for directions to the House of the Moon, where wishes can be granted, if the hour is right and the need is great enough. There are people who will try, and try, and try, and receive nothing for their efforts but a broken heart.
And then there are these douchebags, who decide they want to reproduce and bam, pregnancy! They are horrid parents, and care nothing for children they had spawned. Chester and Serena wanted living, breathing dolls, to pose as they chose so that others would admire what they had created. Serena wanted a pretty daughter to dress up, to be admired by the other women in her circle. Chester wanted a son to show off at work, a perfect miniature replica of himself. When they had two girls instead, a wrench was thrown into their plans. And, as it turned out, babies were mewling, messy things, who refused to hear reason and follow orders.
This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them. A person may look at someone else’s child and see only the surface, the shiny shoes or the perfect curls. They do not see the tears and the tantrums, the late nights, the sleepless hours, the worry. They do not even see the love, not really. It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own.
But babies do eventual grow into children, and children are a bit more malleable; at least for a time. Instead of learning who their children were, the Wolcotts forced them each into a separate mold: one an incredibly girly-girl bedecked in lace and ribbons and taught to fear dirt and fun; one a tomboy with short hair and grass-stained jeans who was taught to distain frills and stillness. There was no love here, not even the encouragement of love between the twins themselves. These girls were not taught to think for themselves; they were taught to obey, and to fulfill the roles assigned to them. They were never comfortable in their own skin. Until they stumbled upon their door.
Had they been allowed to grow according to their own paths, to follow their own interests, they might have met Alice, and Peter, and Dorothy, all the children who had strayed from the path and found themselves lost in someone else’s fairyland. But fairy tales had been too bloody and violent for Serena’s tastes, and children’s books had been too soft and whimsical for Chester’s tests, and so somehow, unbelievable as it might seem, Jaqueline and Jillian had never been exposed to the question of what might be lurking behind a door that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Behind the door, the girls find the Moors, a world of barren, harsh beauty; a realm of science and monsters and brutal loveliness. Behind the door, the girls found their home.
There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. There are worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters in the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of these things. The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.
I feel like this book is so important. If Every Heart a Doorway was an ode to misfits, Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a cautionary tale, both for those who don’t fit the mold of society and the people who would try to force them to change. This book is for everyone who has ever felt stunted and trapped by the role they’ve been relegated to, and for every person who has ever been disappointed in another individual for refusing to play by the rules they have arbitrarily laid out. Everyone should be loved for who they are, and encouraged to discover who that person truly is, and parents who rage against this idea break my heart.
One a lighter note, I was a huge fan of McGuire shift in storytelling format in this novella. The narrator was a character in their own right, harkening back to gothic novels of eras past in tone. We are told what to think and what to see, which is a method of storytelling that rarely works anymore, generally feeling antiquated and clunky and too demanding. But here, in this cautionary tale with its gothic setting, the narration works fabulously well. Seanan McGuire is a literary artist, and if you’ve never read her work, Wayward Children is the perfect series to try. I loved this book just as much as I loved its predecessor, and I’ll be eagerly awaiting Beneath the Sugar Sky.