Tuesday, April 1, 2014

This Just In

Ok, maybe it's not really news, having been announced four months ago, but Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood and Co. : The Screaming Staircase won a 2014 Cybils award for Sci Fi / Fantasy.

What, you may ask, are the Cybils? Comes, somehow, from Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards which is given each year to the most deserving nominated books as determined by a group of dedicated bloggers. You can read more about it here.

Who, then, is this Jonathan Stroud? He is probably best known for a group of books known collectively as the Bartimaeus trilogy, about a young wizard in training who is, decidedly, NOT enrolled at Hogwarts. Rather than learning magic through taking classes at a boarding school, Stroud's magicians are apprentices who learn to control dangerous demons who, hopefully, carry out their bidding. Some might say the Bartimaeus books are even better than those books about that wizard whose name rhymes with Nary Notter.

What is this Screaming Staircase? Just as Stroud's Bartimaeus books take place in an alternative Victorian England where things like demons can be summoned, The Screaming Staircase takes place in a different alternative Victorian England. This England has been invaded, for some unknown reason, by ghosts of the dead. The ghosts are troublesome, not merely because they are scary, which they are, but because they are deadly. Anyone who touches a ghost will certainly be injured and can easily be killed. To make matters worse ghosts are invisible to most people. Only gifted children can see them.

Thus, in this alternative England, these gifted children have been employed--or, rather, exploited by businesses run by adults--to deal with the problem of ghosts. Lucy Carlyle, a small town girl, has a strong talent for detecting the supernatural but when things go wrong with her employer, she runs away to the big city (London) where she meets and joins Anthony Lockwood and his assistant George, the members of Lockwood and Company. The three children together form a company that threatens the city's more established firms, but when they inadvertently burn down a house while investigating a haunting, their fledging business is threatened with shut down. Only by investigating one of the most dangerous haunted properties in all of England can they earn enough to pay for the damage and to pay off their fines.

Like the Bartimaeus books before it, the most striking quality of Lockwood and Co. is the specifics and intricate detail around the ghosts. Stroud goes deep into the history of previous hauntings and very naturally, through his characters, richly enlightens readers on how to find, capture, and contain ghosts. The books worth reading for the Victorian ghost hunting devices alone. A helpful glossary is included if you get lost.

But also like his earlier work, Stroud's story burns bright because of the characters that inhabit it. The kids are all plucky, sarcastic and bright. The dialogue amongst them moves from amusing to hilarious. But they are also all each uniquely wounded. You have no choice but to root for them.

The book is not perfect. It suffers, like many mysteries, just a little from what I call the Scooby-Doo endin, in which it is predictably revealed that the real villain was the least predictable candidate. But this is a minor gripe and I certainly haven't read a book published in 2013 that's more deserving of the Cybils. Let me give a belated hat tip to my fellow bloggers for an excellent choice.


Liviania said...

Thank you!

But it should be noted that Screaming Staircase has an ambiguous time period that's definitely more modern than Victorian.

mr chompchomp said...

Thanks, Liviania. Ambiguous is fair. Maybe even modern. It does have a Victorian feel.

mr chompchomp said...

I have stricken the word "Victorian" where it appears.