Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

This is the first of Philip Pullman’s Victorian mystery novels featuring Sally Lockhart. She is 16-years-old in this story, her father has just died in a shipwreck, and she finds herself in the middle of nefarious dealings involving a missing ruby, criminal gangs, fraud, piracy, and the opium trade.

Because the protagonist is young, this is often considered a Young Adult novel. Don’t let this mislead you. This is a well-crafted tale of mystery, murder, and intrigue. The characters are engaging. The prose is exceptional.

Victorian England is a great setting for stories because of the sharp contrasts it provides — from the largely illiterate poor working in sweatshops or grubbing a living on the streets of London, to the cultured gentry living on returns from investments of inherited capital. The extraordinary portrayal of this time and the details scattered throughout the scenes in this book make it seem as if they were written by someone who lived there, or who is, at least, intimately familiar with it and can bring it to life for those of us who are not.

I often find myself uncomfortable putting novels in predefined genre cubbyholes because the best of them often don’t fit. This is one. I think the YA categorization of this particular book and the rest of the series is most inappropriate. Sally is not a typical teenager and she is not a typical Victorian young lady. Neither is she a role model many people would want their kids to emulate, although I, as and adult, found her admirable. She defies convention, questions authority, and does her best in a bad situation.

The story is dark, at times, darker than I normally prefer, and although a hopeful conclusion comes a bit unexpectedly, it is not a case of “and they all lived happily ever after.”

In my opinion, this ranks among the best Victorian mystery novels that I have read. The story is suspenseful, the characters are well portrayed and believable, and the protagonist is likeable. I highly recommend it — for adults. (Some kids may like it, too.)

 

(Note: A T.V. adaptation of this book starring Billie Piper (Doctor Who) was produced for BBC One in 2006. (I haven’t seen it, yet.)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruby_in_the_Smoke)

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About Dave

A reader and writer of speculative fiction. See my website for more information on me and my writing. https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/

Posted on September 12, 2012, in 5 Star Reviews, Book Reviews, Young Adult and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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