Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children was an island of misfit toys, a place to put the unfinished stories and the broken wanderers who could butcher a deer and string a bow but no longer remembered what to do with indoor plumbing. It was also, more importantly, a holding pen for heroes. Whatever they might have become when they’d been cast out of their chosen homes, they’d been heroes once, each in their own ways. And they did not forget.
Come Tumbling Down (2020), the fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN YA fantasy series, returns to the conflicted relationship between twins Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill Wolcott, in a some-months-later sequel to where we left them at the end of Every Heart a Doorway. (Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel that tells their story in much more detail, though it’s the second book published in the series.) To recap — spoiler alert for the first and second books here — as children Jack and Jill had found their way to a portal world called the Moors, where Jack was raised by a … if not mad, at least highly peculiar … scientist, and Jill was raised by a master vampire to be his daughter and heir, before they returned to our world and spent some time turning the Home for Wayward Children upside down. When they returned to the Moors at the end of Every Heart a Doorway, Jill was dead at Jack’s hand, but Jack was confident that she could resurrect her sister once they returned to the Moors and, perhaps more important, that because Jill had died and been brought back to life, she would no longer be able to be turned into a vampire.
But Jill is not in the least repentant of her lethal lifestyle, and she and her adoptive vampire father have thought of an ingenious way to get around this limitation. What she’s now done is beyond the pale — not only is it ruining Jack’s life, pushing her to the edge of a mental breakdown, but it’s likely to lead to an imbalance of power and deadly warfare in the Moors world. So Jack, with her girlfriend Alexis, returns to the Wayward Children home to get help from her old friends. Did Eleanor say “no quests”? Oh well!
Come Tumbling Down didn’t quite reach the heights of my favorite books in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and In an Absent Dream, but it comes quite close. McGuire does a great job examining Jack and Jill’s deeply troubled hearts. Jack, brilliant but burdened with OCD, has found joy in the mad scientist lifestyle, at least until the most recent troubles. She calls herself a monster, and in some ways that’s true, but she’s more or less a good-hearted person, if obsessive and demanding. Jill, though, is on a whole different level.
Jill had always been the more dangerous, less predictable Wolcott, for all that she was the one who dressed in pastel colors and lace and sometimes remembered that people liked it when you smiled. Something about the way she’d wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn’t been properly embalmed, like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.
Joining Jack on her quest to set things right again in Jack’s life and in the Moors world are several familiar faces, including Kade (the one-time goblin prince), Christopher (who longs for the magical skeleton world of Mariposa), Cora (the former mermaid with the blue-green hair) and Sumi. They all bring their unique characters and talents to the story. The most delightful was Sumi, whose flighty behavior and off-the-wall comments conceal a sharp mind. She calls the crimson moon in the Moors “the sugared cherry on the biggest murder sundae in the whole world” and is serenely confident that one day she’ll find her way back to the world called Confection, where the gummy worms will eat her body when she dies.
Come Tumbling Down is a quest type of adventure novel, mixing together friendship and horror. It’s lifted above the norm by the quirkiness of the characters, by the tragedy of the broken relationship between twin sisters Jack and Jill, and by Seanan McGuire’s insightful commentary. She muses on what would have happened if Jack had become the vampire’s protégé rather than Jill, and the ruthless business tycoon Sumi would have become if she hadn’t found the door to Confection as a young girl. And she shows us how wayward children can be heroes. Sometimes, even, the monsters are the heroes.
Not having read (yet) any of the preceding WAYWARD CHILDREN books, I was curious to see how well Come Tumbling Down might function as an introduction to the series. How lost would I be, how much or how little context might Seanan McGuire provide, and would I be interested in backtracking through the other novellas once I was finished with this one? It turns out the answers are: not at all, a surprising amount without repeatedly freezing the narrative in place, and VERY.
In talking over series continuity with Tadiana, it seems that McGuire is writing these books in such a way as to accommodate for readers like myself, an approach which I really appreciate. I know nothing about Christopher’s Mariposa or Sumi’s Confection, and equally as little about Cora’s Trenches or the horrifying history between Jack and her sister, but the bits and bobs I picked up made me so curious to discover how much information might lie in store elsewhere — and their actions within Come Tumbling Down were more than sufficient to prove to me that they, and their questing companions, are full-blooded heroes.
For all its slimness, the story itself packs a punch, focusing on what some readers might call “the good parts:” a serious injustice has been committed and must be set right; companions must be gathered and the questing-grounds traveled to; uneasy truces and questionable allies must be established; the terrible showdown must be seen through to its bitter end. This frees up McGuire to put her attention to wordplay and the emotional beats of the story, which were fully-realized and rewarding, and held more than a few surprises. I’ve read so many quest narratives, I’ve trudged through interminable swamps and sat through more than my fair share of stew descriptions, I’ve rolled dice in the hopes of passing a dexterity or initiative check, and I was so pleased to be able to skip all that and just enjoy a well-told story. You can safely bet that I’ll be getting my paws on the rest of the WAYWARD CHILDREN series as soon as I possibly can — by hook, crook, or library book!
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