Opinions change. There are times I don’t like a book and yet I know that, if I were to reread it, I wouldn’t feel the same way. It has happened to me with The Star Touched Queen and Jade City; now here we are again.
I knew, before listening to this audiobook, that I probably would have liked it more this time around. That’s also because of how much I loved In An Absent Dream this year, and because I see this series differently as a whole; I think I have a better grasp on what it wants to be.
The first time I read this book, I was 17, and I rated it two stars. Now I’m 20, and with this reread, I see it in a completely different way, and yet not. I went back and reread my review on my old Italian blog, and I still agree with almost every single thing I said then. This book is the same as it was; I didn’t read it wrong, whatever that might mean, or miss anything particularly important.
It’s just that context can do so much.
Let’s start with the thing I hated the most about Down Among the Sticks and Bones in 2017: it’s one of the most repetitive and unsubtle things I’ve ever read, and relies almost only on telling. There’s little in the book world I hate as much as a story that doesn’t trust its reader to understand and therefore beats them over the head with its message. Usually.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t realize, back then, just how much these books are meant to be read as a fairytale. The whole series plays with fairytale and portal fantasy tropes, and both genres tend to thrive on the familiar, on repetition.
Because of how it relied on telling more than Every Heart a Doorway did, this novella was an irritating read. If you listen to it on audiobook, as I did the second time around, it’s delightful. Not only you don’t have to worry if you miss something – oh, will the story remind you, as anyone speaking to you who wants to get their point across would – but the telling bothers you a lot less if the story is actually being told to you.
It’s not that it can’t work in written form, it’s just that most of what I saw as a flaw then I now see as just a difference in format and goal.
I still don’t like how much this story lacks in nuance.
This is true for most of Seanan McGuire’s books, especially the less recent ones I’ve read. This story won’t let you draw your own conclusions about the characters and the themes it explores, it has the tendency to tell you what to think. Which is irritating even though – because? – I would have drawn those conclusions anyway and agree with the message.
Lack of nuance also tends to come with the territory. Neither fairytales nor portal fantasy are known for it (is anyone going to pretend Narnia ever bothered with something as heretical as nuance and subtlety? Ha. Yes, lack of subtlety is probably more irritating when you disagree with the message, but then you don’t feel bad about it!)
That still doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s kind of dissonant to read about how adults often don’t allow their children to form their own preferences and opinions because they don’t really see children as people in a book that fervently demands you don’t form your own about the theme either.
One thing I liked the most about In An Absent Dream is that I felt it gave the reader more space to think on their own. This really doesn’t, and it’s the reason I can’t give it a higher rating despite how much more I appreciated this story this time around.
This time, I understood the charm the world of the Moors has, and grew attached to Jack in a way I hadn’t at all the first time. She’s a queer mad scientist in training who has to deal with mental health issues (OCD)! Of course I love her. And the author really made this world come alive with the descriptions. So creepy, so terrible, and yet I get why the twins want to stay. It’s not like our world can’t be that to a lot of people.
Another thing that has changed for me is that I’m no longer angry at the ending. I don’t fault 17-year-old me for feeling that way about an ambiguous ending that might or might not have implied a homophobic trope, and I didn’t know Come Tumbling Down would exist then. Now, of course, things have changed.
My rating: ★★★½
Have you read this? What is your favorite novella in this series?