Find it at a local indie!
- Why I read it: Author I love, mystery, Victorian era
- Disclosure: Got a copy as a Christmas present from Santa, which tells you how long ago it was - can't believe it took me this long to read it!
Sally is sixteen and uncommonly pretty. Her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art and music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.
When her dear father is drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Sally is left to fend for herself, an orphan and alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Though she doesn't know it, Sally is already in terrible danger. Soon the mystery and the danger will deepen - and at the rotten heart of it all lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke...
If I had to name a children's/teen's author of the past twenty years most likely to be remembered over the next few centuries, it would have to be J.K. Rowling - it's hard to ignore an author that rewrites an entire culture. If we're talking runners-up, though, it's Philip Pullman hands down. Not only did he write one of the most exquisitely crafted and original fantasy trilogies ever in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, he also has written exquisitely crafted and original novels pretty much everywhere else. Don't believe me? Check out his Wikipedia bibliography. Despite the incredible variety of his work, from modern-day fairy tales to plays to comics to a kids' activity book titled Using the Oxford Junior Dictionary, he's special in that he never loses his quirky, playful, and eloquent voice - though perhaps it was strained in that last title.
Actually, why don't I quit the uber-reviewer jargon and justification and cut to the chase: I am a proud Philip Pullman fangrrl. I'm working on the T-shirts.
That's why I'm kind of astonished that I made it through this many years of fandom (eight and counting) without picking up his second most well known series, the Sally Lockhart trilogy - of which The Ruby in the Smoke is the first installment. Unlike 95.1% of the time (very scientific statistic there), I didn't have the excuse that I was broke and couldn't get a copy, because my parents were nice enough to stick it in my Santa stocking the Christmas I was nine years old. I seriously have no idea how a book by an author I love manages to kick around my bookshelves for almost seven years without being read or lost or both, but this one managed it, and in hindsight maybe that's not terrible. While this book wasn't quite on par with Lyra and Will and company, I still have a whole new set of characters to fall in love with.
First of all, Sally is a bad@$$ - capable, smart, and no-nonsense - but she's also not perfect. She gets in over her head, is bossy, definitely not great with kids, and sometimes she gets downright freaked - just like a real sixteen-year-old. (A side note for fellow Doctor Who fans, Billie Piper got the role in a 2007 TV movie adaptation.) Rosa and Frederick are delightfully boho-ditzy-artist types, while the ensemble is sinister and entertaining by turns. The setting of grimy, pea-soup-foggy London is so vivid it's almost a character in and of itself, full of opium dens and seedy alleyways and big-eyed orphans. If you're not already a convert to the steampunk/Victorian scene it might make for heavy going, but for addicts like me it's a heady thing.
The thing I loved the most about it is the sensation that not one word is wasted - it's a short, small read, perfect purse-size. Pullman is a master at sucking you in without draining you, something I'm only truly starting to appreciate three weeks into spring semester. After school and homework I'm exhausted and cranky, and all I want is a book that will entertain me and distract me from that hideously difficult Comp II assignment that's due tomorrow, while also being well-written enough that the literary snob in me doesn't fall into a saccharine coma. The Ruby in the Smoke fits that bill perfectly, and I can't wait to pick up the sequels. Philip Pullman, you're still my hero! Five out of five stars.