Sally Lockhart is a rare woman in Victorian England. She’s a single mother, competent, independent, and a successful and prosperous business owner. She has never been married, so when she is served with divorce papers, she cannot understand how such a mistake could be made. It soon becomes clear it is not a mistake. The details about her in the document are correct — all except one. She has never met the man claiming to be her husband, the man who wants to take custody of her daughter.
I would not have labeled this a YA book. There is nothing juvenile about it. It is a suspenseful Dickensian story of vengeance, greed, cruelty, and corruption, which vividly captures the social conflicts of the time. The images of Victorian London are detailed and clear. The contrasts between rich and poor, worker and owner are sharp. The only YA aspect may be a carryover from the first book in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke, in which Sally is first introduced as a 16-year-old orphan. I didn’t see that book as specifically YA either, though.
My only criticism, and it’s not a strong one, is that I thought Sally should have been a bit quicker on the uptake in identifying the real force behind her troubles. I figured it out long before she did, but then I, as a reader, understand this is a novel and therefore must make sense. Real life, of course, is not like that.
I highly recommend this book to all readers, especially those fond of Victorian mysteries. It’s a great story.
Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke
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)