Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #354: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

It's not easy work, hunting ghosts. First of all, only some children can even see and hear the ghosts to fight them -- the ability starts to fade out sometime unpredictable in the late teens -- and many ghosts have the power to freeze people in their tracks, the better to scare them to death. Sure, iron and silver and salt and fire work pretty well to contain or dispel a ghost, but only finding and eliminating its source will stop a ghost permanently -- scattering ectoplasm just means the specter will be back the next night.

That's the world Lucy Carlyle lives in, as one of the three agents of Lockwood & Co., the smallest agency in London. She's somewhere in her early teens, in something like the present day, in a world where ghosts unexplainedly began to appear widely in the early 1960s. Children in her world are tougher and more self-sufficient than we're used to -- at least the ones we see -- because they are the only ones who can perform dangerous work on a nightly basis, and so society has changed to let them do that work. With all that iron and silver, and the fortunes made by adults selling them to a frightened world, Lucy's London feels Victorian, full of dark nights and ghost-fighting steel rapiers, iron chains and silver nets.

Lucy has been with Lockwood & Co. for a little over six months as The Whispering Skull begins, and things have settled to the usual work of an agency since the tumult of her first case, The Screaming Staircase. Lockwood's profile in the world has risen with that success, and agency head Anthony Lockwood -- just barely older than Lucy, though with hidden secrets and a family background that gave him a Portland Row townhouse -- is quoted in the papers semi-regularly. But their agency is still an anomaly: not just the smallest agency in London, but the only one actually run by its agents, and not by adults that used to be able to see ghosts. The Fittes agency, in the person of the odious team leader Quill Kipps, is particularly unpleasant, seeming to dog their steps wherever they go.

Kipps's crew and Lockwood's find themselves in competition when a simple job of guarding an excavation at the Kensal Green Cemetery turns complicated: the grave of Edmund Bickerstaff, Victorian occultist and doctor, is an iron box containing a powerful spirit and a unique artifact. That artifact, a mirror in a frame of bones that each holds another ghost, is stolen that night -- and Inspector Barnes of DEPRAC wants it back immediately, especially after both of the thieves turn up dead within a day. Fittes and Lockwood are each independently working on the case, and the losing team will have to take out an advertisement in the local papers to proclaim the superiority of the winners.

That would be enough, but another artifact -- a skull within a jar, which the Lockwood agents keep and which may have spoken to Lucy once -- is stirring, telling her malicious secrets and asking misleading questions. Only one other agent, the legendary Marina Fittes, has ever had verified contact with a Type Three ghost, one that clearly communicates with living humans. So this skull could be a huge coup for Lockwood and Lucy...if they can get anyone else to believe them and if its whisperings don't get all of them killed first.

The dangerous magical mirror is reminiscent of some of the paraphernalia in Stroud's Bartimeus books, though the stakes in the "Lockwood & Co." books remain on a purely personal and professional level. Whispering Skull is a smart, exciting supernatural thriller for young readers (or older ones), even if it doesn't have the scope and depth of the Bartimeus trilogy. And there are hints in this book that the stakes may get larger, and possibly simultaneously more personal, as the series goes on. I look forward to seeing many more adventures of Lucy and her fellow agents.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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