Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud)

The Screaming Staircase
(The Lockwood & Co. series, Book 1)
Jonathan Stroud
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since the dawn of history, humans have started at darkness, shadows, and things that go bump in the night. Since the Problems woke spirits across England, those things have become all too real - and the touch of a ghost is just as deadly to grown-ups who barely sense their presence as to more sensitive kids. Iron, silver, salt, and lights help keep the wraiths at bay after sundown, but thus far the most effective ghost-fighters have been gifted children. Armed with silver-tipped rapiers, salt bombs, iron filings, chains, and other gadgets, they prowl the nights dispersing specters and, where possible, identifying and neutralizing the Sources, the item (often mortal remains) to which the spirits are bound.
Lucy Carlyle is one such girl. She had a promising career ahead of her, until a disaster led her to be blamed for the deaths of several fellow agents - a disaster caused by the cowardice of their adult supervisor. She came to London hoping to find a new job, but her record holds her back, until she makes it to the door of Lockwood & Co. Anthony Lockwood's an inscrutable boy, prone to mercurial moods, not to mention a certain eccentric streak. For one, he tolerates George, who's tooth-grindingly annoying on his best days. For another, he runs his agency without adult supervision - a serious risk, and one that puts him at odds with DEPRAC, England's official government department for handling the Problems. Lucy might've passed if she'd had other options, but she needs the job, and Lockwood and George need a new partner. Little does she know what adventures lay ahead... particularly the case of the Screaming Staircase, which begins innocuously enough with a standard suburban haunting, but leads to a forgotten murder, a vengeful spirit, and deep into the blood-soaked halls of one of England's most haunted sites.

REVIEW: Stroud creates another interesting twist on modern-day London with his latest series, creating a haunted world where children - traditionally the victims of formless nocturnal fears - are forced onto the front lines of a supernatural battle. In a country with as long and bloody a history as England, there's no shortage of spirits to haunt the night, and for every one dispatched a dozen more are waiting to take their place. It's not a victimless fight, either; agents (and their adult supervisors, often those who have outgrown most of their Talents) frequently die confronting spirits, sometimes to return as wraiths themselves. Even those who survive are haunted by what they see and experience. This adventure acts as a pilot episode, establishing the characters and the world as the story unfolds. As such, at times it seems a bit slow, backtracking through Lucy's history and other things, but even when it's simply laying groundwork it's interesting enough to keep reading. Lucy's Talent for psychometry (picking up residual memories and emotions off haunted objects) draws her deeper into the world of the ghosts than either of her partners, an empathy that threatens her more than once; even a victim of terrible injustice is deadly to the living. George is the comic relief, chubby and food-obsessed and always ready with a smart line, though his research skills and other talents make him a fully competent team member when it counts. As for Lockwood, he's almost annoyingly inscrutable at times, a junior version of Carnacki with touches of Sherlock Holmes around the edges. The three work fairly well together in their investigation, which tangles paths with the living as much as the (un)dead. All in all, it's a fine, spirited adventure, with some truly chilling moments and a decent mystery at its heart. I expect I'll read on if and when I track down Book 2 at a reasonable price.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Glimpse (Steven Whibley) - My Review

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