Sunday, April 12, 2015

loopyker's #CBR7 Review #2 and #3: Book 1 & 2 Sally Lockhart Mysteries by Philip Pullman

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman book cover

After very much enjoying several of Philip Pullman's other books (His Dark Materials and companion books, The Firework Maker's Daughter and The Scarecrow and His Servant), I had high hopes for the Sally Lockhart Mysteries.

In the first book, The Ruby in the Smoke, we meet Sally who, at age 16, has been recently orphaned.  She is curious to know more about the circumstances of her father's death after receiving some ambiguous information.  Sally has had a very nontraditional upbringing in 1872 Victorian London, so feels comfortable in asserting her independence to have the freedom she needs to investigate.

In theory, it sounds like exactly the type of book I would really like.  No fantasy, but it touches on my two other favourite genres - historical fiction and mystery. As Sally makes friends, it even gets into the history of photography and stereoscopic photography, which made it more personally interesting to me as an amateur photographer.  However, I still didn't really connect with Sally's character or the plot.

I am a bit confused about what age group Pullman was aiming for.  The details about financial interests, politics and the opium trade were short history lessons and relevant to the plot, but I found many of the discussions about them quite boring.  Perhaps the inability to skim the details since I was listening to an audiobook emphasized that too.   I could understand things on an intellectual level, but just didn't really care about it, even though I am someone who is generally interested in these things in real life.   I'm not sure that a younger audience would stay interested. 

Sally's friends were more likeable and things were a bit better when there was more interaction with them.  However, that wasn't true for the interactions with her enemies.  The main villain of the story was way over-the-top.  I kept feeling like Pullman was trying to take it to a "fantasy" place like he did later in other books, rather than "historical" and it didn't settle in a good place for me.

Sally, just didn't seem very consistent to me either.  She seems to be intelligent and independent or careless and unfocused whenever it is convenient for the plot.  She even seems to forget all about one of the parts of the mystery that would seem to be important to her.

Honestly, I was so uninterested by the end, that I've forgotten the ending now.

As far as the audiobook, it was a good quality production and narrator, however some of the accents, while probably authentic (I am no judge), could be hard to understand for someone not familiar with them.   I often find that kind of thing easier to understand when reading.  His voice is a little boring when in plain narrator mode, but very good at capturing the individual characters of both genders and different ages. 

I only halfheartedly began the 2nd book, The Shadow in the North, because I had already requested it before reading the first one.    I'm happy to say, that while still not up to the other books I've read by Philip Pullman, it was better than Book 1. 

The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman book coverThe second books starts a few years after the first, when Sally is now 22.  Most of the old gang of friends are still around, although probably not in the way we would have expected.  Sally is an independent woman though, which is not at all surprising.  The audiobook narrator is the same as the first book, so there is good continuity for the returning characters.

Sally has her own accounting and financial consulting business and is troubled by a bad turn of events for one of her client's accounts. Suspecting some shady business practices, Sally investigates and her friends all end up involved, one way or the other.  This proves very dangerous for everyone as they are again, up against ruthless villains.  While just as violent, (or even more so), the "bad-guys" don't seem quite as over-the-top to me as those in the first book. 

In this book, I felt that it was Sally's feminism and independent characteristics that were overdone and again gave me a feeling of inconsistency.  She isn't much more likeable either, despite me usually being very pro-feminism.   And again, some of the business details get a little bogged down when listening to them.  In this book the "history" lesson is mostly around the popularity of spiritualism at that time and the related con-artists.

Both books are rather dark and in some way bleaker even than the often chilling subject matter in His Dark Materials.  Somehow, they are missing some humour and warmth to their main characters that I've come to expect from Pullman.  The second book became disappointingly disjointed at the end, but at least this time I do want to see where things go in the third book.

As a pair, books 1 & 2 are OK, but disappointing if you are expecting Philip Pullman's brilliance from his later books.  I suspect if I had started with The Sally Lockhart Mysteries and then had watched him grow into His Dark Materials, I would have had a more favourable impression.  You can see some hints of where he will be going in his future books, but he isn't quite there enough yet for me to really enjoy these.


Book 1: 1.5 stars; Book 2: 2.5 stars

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Books 1 & 2, Sally Lockhart Mystery series

Author: Philip Pullman
Narrator: Anton Lesser
Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group

Book 1
Title: The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery
Duration: 6 hours, 26 minutes
ISBN: 9780739330210
Release date:  Oct 31, 2006

Other formats: hardcover/paperback
Print length: 240/230 pages
First published: 1985

Book 2
Title: The Shadow in the North: A Sally Lockhart Mystery
Duration: 8 hours, 57 minutes
ISBN: 9780739353738
Release date: Oct 31, 2006

Other formats: hardcover/paperback
Print length: 331/384 pages
First published: 1986

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Rating system:
1 star (didn't like); 2 stars (OK); 3 stars (good); 4 stars (very good); 5 stars (favourite)

Also check out Cannonball Read for a variety of book reviews from many others.

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