Like a lot of people I enjoyed Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy. However, I was unfamiliar with the Sally Lockhart series which preceded them. What a treat! Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke - the first book in the quartet - is a delightful blend of melodrama and historical fiction. Reader beware! This is not a book to be read if you have several other pressing engagements - it is truly gripping stuff. The attention-grabbing opening paragraph promises excitement and suspense: "Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man." Pullman certainly delivers on both fronts.
Sixteen-year-old Sally sets out to solve the mystery of her father's death and finds herself caught up in the criminal underworld of Victorian London. She knows that her father's demise has something to do with "The Seven Blessings" but where will she find the answers to her questions? And who can she trust?
I found the characters in this novel to be immediately engaging, two-dimensional perhaps, but all the more entertaining for it. What the "uncommonly pretty" Sally lacks in formal education, she makes up for in other areas:
She had a thorough grounding in the principles of military tactics and book-keeping, a close acquaintance with the affairs of the Stock Market, and a working knowledge of Hindustani. Furthermore she could ride well [...] and for her fourteenth birthday her father had bought her a little Belgian pistol, the one she carried everywhere, and taught her to shoot.
With the help of a Dickensian crew of comrades, Sally lays bare the secrets surrounding the blood-soaked ruby.
This novel lacks the layering and ambiguity of Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy and, to do it justice, must be appraised as an entirely different animal. Moreover, it has plenty of quirks and surprises of its own to offer. And, as we have come to expect with Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke overturns conventions, pushing the boundaries of children's literature in its depiction of crime, violence, and drug use, among other issues. This willingness to challenge and entertain young readers is one of the reasons that Pullman is such an important author today.
The diversity of Victorian fiction is referred to in the nods to various nineteenth-century fictional genres within The Ruby in the Smoke, such as detective fiction, the sensation novel, the epistolary novel, and the adventure story. Non-fictional elements are also introduced in the inclusion of newspaper clippings and references to contemporaneous events, such as the discovery of the Mary Celeste and the introduction of the 1872 ballot Reform Act, thus adding to the novel's atmosphere. But unlike the long-winded realist novels of the period (which Henry James once described as "large, loose baggy monsters"), Pullman's Victorian pastiche is pacy and streamlined - perfect for children's literature.
It fact, the narrative hurtles forward at such a speed that the sometimes illogical plotting isn't always apparent. A careful reader will spot certain loose ends and unanswered questions. However, the reading experience is so enjoyable that they will probably not begrudge the author's artistic license too much. If anything, these melodramatic twists and turns mark Pullman as a legitimate heir to that great Victorian storyteller, Charles Dickens. The Ruby in the Smoke is a promising opening novel in an exciting quartet; I look forward to reading the next installment.