Saturday, September 14, 2013

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Stroud, Jonathan.  The Screaming Staircase: Lockwood & Co. Book One.  Disney Book Group.  September 2013.

I picked up this book, I confess, because I loved Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and I was hoping for something in a similar vein.  And there are certain similarities.  The story is set in an alternate England, one in which the supernatural is normal, or at least expected.  The main characters are young, adolescents with exceptional and preternatural gifts.  And the adults whose lives intersect with those of Stroud’s young heroes are often antagonistic; certainly they are not helpful or supportive.  Indeed, the book’s narrator, Lucy Carlyle, her boss, Anthony Lockwood, and colleague George Cubbins must battle not only the ghostly Visitors who infest London and Britain, but against an adult world which tries to control how and when they can use their gifts.   

But it is the differences between this new series and Bartimaeus which are perhaps most compelling.  Missing is the wonderful snark that Bartimaeus himself provides the reader with his footnoted commentaries.  That trilogy, for all its action and moments of horror, is funny.  And it is/was that humor that made me such a fan of Stroud’s previous work.  The Screaming Staircase does have flashes of that wonderful humor, often in Lucy’s thoughts about her boss and George's commentary on life in general, but overall, it is definitely more horror than comedy.

And that is no way a criticism.  Indeed, I was reminded more of Rick Yancy’s Monstrumologist series (which I also love) than Stroud’s earlier works, though I must confess there is much less bloodshed here.  From the Lucy and Lockwood’s first encounter with an angry Visitor to the group’s terrifying night in one of England’s most haunted residences, this book is legitimately, absolutely must keep reading horrifying in the best sense of the word.  The adult reader knows, logically anyway, that if a book is marketed as first in a series, the heroes must survive to see the story through.  But, J. K. Rowling showed us that not all the heroes must or do survive, that main characters can be sacrificed for the greater good.  Stroud keeps the pages turning, through twists and tangles until the dramatic climax is reached.  And, like Rowling, he both gives the reader a sense of both resolution and anticipation, closing the chapter of this particular episode while also setting up a continuing story arc to tease the reader with the next possible adventure.

Interesting, likable, and multidimensional characters with potential for continuing growth combined with a deft touch at world-building makes this first in a series novel a definite winner for both teen and adult readers.  And while the male/male/female friendship triad has become a common one in young adult fiction in recent years, Stroud's characters do not fall easily into that kind of trusting dynamic.  Instead, their relationship(s) are ones in which everyone has secrets and bonds are slow to form, even as they face ghosts and death together.  Competition, ego, disparate personalities, and those secrets conspire against Lockwood & Co, but slowly they do begin to realize they are stronger together than they are as individuals.  The Screaming Staircase offers a hint of the kind of power team this oddball group could become;  I find myself already impatiently waiting for whatever adventures will next befall Lockwood & Company.

ARC received through NetGalley.  

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