Friday, February 14, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #45: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Being original doesn't come automatic. When everyone else is writing vampires, it easier to write vampires. Even then, what passes for "original" could mean writing angels...who are immortal and sparkly and strangely drawn to a mousy teen girl in a small town. No, it's not easy to just go your own way. But that path leads to much better places, all of the time.

Jonathan Stroud shows no sign of following trends. When Harry Potter was the big thing -- and super-special boy wizards saving the world were everywhere -- he wrote the great Bartimaeus books, in which human magicians were intrinsically horrible people with no actual power and their extradimensional servants were arrogant, utterly inhuman and possibly even more cruel than their masters. And he showed there that saving a person is more vital than saving the world.

Now, Stroud has a new series. And in a world now filled with novels for teens filled with sexy vampires and sexy werewolves and sexy angels and sexy fairies (and sexy goblins, for all I know), he's stuck with decidedly unsexy ghosts. And his main character, Lucy Carlyle, shows no interest in sexiness, either: she's got a job to do.

The Screaming Staircase is the first in a series called "Lockwood & Co," about a small investigative operation in an alternate-world London. in Lucy's world, ghosts started becoming more common fifty years ago -- the book is vague on precise timing, but it's probably set more-or-less now, so that makes the beginning of the Problem soon after WW II, in the middle of the 20th century. Ghosts are dangerous and often fatal to those they encounter, but only a few can can detect them in time -- you need a Talent to hear or see spirits. And Talents tend to emerge in children and sputter out at the end of adolescence, so Britain is reliant on an industry of young agents to find, stop, and remove its ghosts. (And equally reliant on a large industry that creates defensive measures, in iron, silver and salt, to fortify the homes Britons no longer leave after dark.)

Most of those agents work for large companies, such as the industry leaders Fittes and Rotwell, under the supervision of adults who used to be able to detect ghosts, and who supposedly have the depth of experience to make the right decisions at moments of danger. But Anthony Lockwood, the owner and proprietor of the small firm Lockwood & Co., does not agree -- he thinks that an agency made up of only young people, only agents who can actually detect ghosts, would be better.

And so Lockwood & Co. consists of three people: young Lockwood himself, George Cubbins, and now Lucy Carlyle. Lucy is new in London, after a career in her home town, a small village in the North, ended suddenly when the incompetence and fear of her adult supervisor led to the death of every other child operative in his agency -- and very nearly Lucy's as well. So she's inclined to agree with Lockwood: during an investigation, when agents are actively pursuing the Source of a haunting to stop it forever, there's no place for "supervisors" who can't see or hear any of the danger.

The public doesn't share Lockwood & Co.'s opinion -- the agency is already having trouble attracting good customers when one ill-timed explosion during an investigation leaves them with a huge fine to pay and hardly any business. But then a very rich man wants to hire them to clear the most haunted mansion in Britain -- suspiciously, though, he needs them to do it immediately, and without their most powerful tools, in a house he's owned for years.

As happens so often in a mystery, this new case is connected to their previous case -- the one with the unfortunate explosion and fire -- as Lockwood & Co. try to solve a fifty-year-old murder, settle the spirits of a house that has already claimed the lives of an entire Fittes team, and keep themselves alive. Do they succeed? Well, "Lockwood & Co." is meant to be a series. And I hope this series runs long enough for the fans to start complaining that Lockwood and Carlyle surely must be getting to old to do the work by now: this is a original, imaginative, gripping, wonderful fantasy novel for anyone above the age of about eleven, and the world needs more of those.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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