This whole week has been a total write-off for me. I apologise for the dreadful lack of blogging, but for most of the past seven days I was either unable to sit in a chair for any length of time, and/or unable to focus on a computer screen, and/or struggling to breathe through a lungful of gunk, and/or incapable of thought or concentration or, indeed, semi-normal function for longer than ten minutes together. I caught some sort of virus from somewhere (I think I know where, next-door-neighbours’ little boy, but I’m not looking at anyone in particular) and it knocked me pretty much out. I haven’t been so unwell in a long time.
Lucky, then, I’d read this book just before the worst of my grippe struck, wasn’t it?
You may recall my review of the first book in this series, The Screaming Staircase, which I largely loved (though with a few important reservations); this book is similar, insofar as I loved it for the same reasons as I loved the first one, and hated it for the same reasons, too. There are improvements to be seen, most notably in the way George’s character is described; he’s still compared unfavourably to the ‘hero’, Lockwood, at every turn, but in many senses he is far more sympathetic (and more important, and – at one crucial juncture – far more heroic in his own right). However, we are still regularly reminded that he’s ‘ugly’ (how I hate that word), unattractive, and overweight. It’s not as blatant as the first book, but there’s still too much of it. Please, Mr Stroud, for the next book in this series, give George a break? Or at least give him a scene where he loses his cool and just tells the others to stuff it? Listening to them bully him is bad enough, but watching him take it without question is worse.
I also had the same issues with the cover. Lucy, a girl, narrates the whole story, but who’s on the cover? Surprise, surprise – Lockwood. A boy. Naturally. *insert eyeroll here*
Rant over. On to the good stuff – which is, basically, everything else.
I’m really enjoying the feel, and style, of this series so far. It’s quick-witted, razor-sharp in its dialogue, well plotted and addictive. The setting this time bothered me just a little; for some reason, I had read The Screaming Staircase as being set in an earlier age – perhaps an ‘alternative’ 1940s – but this book seems to be bang up to date, with characters wearing puffa jackets and Doc Marten boots, and the like. Parts of the setting seem so old-fashioned, in the best sense (‘ghost lights’ on the street corners like gaslights in Victorian London; rapiers at the belt of every ghost-hunting Agent; children being sent out to work instead of going to school), so it’s a bit of a jerk to read about modern clothing and some modern technology in the middle of all that. However, it’s not too hard to get your head around.
This time, Lucy, George and Lockwood are in the midst of a case when everything goes wrong (of course), and into the fray step Quill Kipps and his team from the Fittes Agency, who manage to save the day (and the skin of the members of Lockwood and Co) at the last moment. In a show of one-upmanship, the teams make a bet: the next time there’s an open commission on a ghost-hunting mission, they’ll both go up for it, and whoever ‘loses’ has to take out an advertisement in the Times declaring themselves to be infinitely inferior to their rival. Fortuitously, just such a case crops up almost straight away – the body of a long-dead (and much-feared) man, Edmund Bickerstaff, is to be disinterred, and those in charge of it need as many Agents as possible on hand to monitor things, just in case. So, our heroes and the Fittes crew throw their hats in the ring. During the course of the disinterment, everything goes pear-shaped (again), and George ends up making a big mistake – one that almost costs him his life.
When an immensely powerful artifact from Bickerstaff’s coffin then goes missing, the two Agencies pit it out to find it, both of them suspecting the other – and then the mysterious skull, which Lockwood has in his home (and which played a minor role in Book One), begins to speak to Lucy. This communication doesn’t resemble the way way ghosts normally ‘speak’ to the living, of course. The spirit attached to the whispering skull is actually talking to Lucy, taunting her, telling her secrets, giving her clues about the man it was when it lived – and, crucially, hinting that it knew Edmund Bickerstaff. Getting the others to believe this is happening is Lucy’s first challenge, and when she does, they have to decide whether to trust the skull, and how to use what it’s telling them.
This is all going on against the backdrop of the hot chase through the streets of London between the Agents and the relic-men and relic-women, those who steal artifacts (some of which are Sources, or focal points for hauntings) from burials for sale to the highest bidder, and the nasty habit some of them have of turning up dead, or the mysterious room in Lockwood’s home which he has forbidden George and Lucy to enter, and the dreadful pull of something called ‘the bone glass’, made from the stolen bones of seven dead souls, on George’s mind…
This was a great book, told well (though, perhaps, a little too long), with a cracking set of characters, including some new ones. It is funny and compelling and unique, and a whole lot scarier than the first one (which I found quite scary enough, to be honest). With my usual caveats about body-shaming, bullying and ridiculous covers, I heartily recommend it. They’re big caveats, to be sure, but they didn’t spoil the book for me.
Not quite, at least.