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Sally Lockhart is a rather unfortunate sixteen year old. Living in Victorian London, she has just found out that her father is dead. Her aunt, with whom she is living, is ripping off her fortune. And she has just killed a man with words. Her lack of good fortune doesn't end there either. She has received strange messages, purporting to be from her father, that appear to be linked to a regular nightmare that she has and a woman called Mrs Holland, who wants her dead. Luckily, Sally is more worldly than the average sixteen year old and manages to make some useful friends, including photographer, Frederick Garland, and office boy Jim. Nevertheless, will she manage to overcome all her troubles to find out the mystery behind her father's death?
Philip Pullman is almost certainly best known for his brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which I would class as science fiction for children (although I loved all three books and know many other adults who did too). The Sally Lockhart series is quite different; it is crime fiction and is as realistic and His Dark Materials is science fiction. However, it does have one thing in common with His Dark Materials - both cross the line between children's and adult's fiction. Ciao has classed it as children's, but I think this is debatable - I certainly enjoyed it as a work of adult crime fiction.
I saw the televised version of The Ruby in the Smoke last Christmas, starring Billie Piper as Sally Lockhart and thoroughly enjoyed it. As such, I was dubious about reading the book, because I didn't want to be disappointed. I most certainly wasn't. The TV version stuck very closely to the book, but I still enjoyed every page of this book. It is certainly one to be savoured.
Sally is as unlike a young woman in Victorian times as you can imagine. She is independent, feisty and determined not to give up, although she is not really sure exactly what she is fighting against. I think she will particularly appeal to teenagers, although I found her deeply appealing as a 38 year old too, which is proof, at least for me, of Philip Pullman's skill as an author - there are not many authors that can appeal to such a wide audience. Character-wise though, Mrs Holland is the piece de resistance. She is so Bill Sykes-like, she could have walked straight out of a Dickens novel.
Set in Victorian London, Pullman has gone to a great deal of effort to ensure that the background oozes a smokey, dirty, poor city and is so vivid that I could see it, although I know a London that is very different. The photography shop that Sally's friend Frederick owns is described in great detail, right down to the work that is sold. For a book that isn't particularly long, this again shows a real skill at using language to create an atmosphere, without using complicated language.
The pacing of the novel is great. Something happens in every chapter and I found it very difficult to put the book down, so keen was I to find out what was going to happen next. Just as I thought I had worked out how the plot was going to end, another strand of plot was woven into the story and new horizons appeared.
I would be reluctant to recommend this book to children younger than twelve. There is quite a lot of violence in it and I think I would have been frightened by the evil-doings of some of the characters. Having said that, I don't have children and I have no doubt that children are exposed to much more these days. Some parental guidance is necessary though, I think - play.com suggest it should be for ten and upwards.
Just in case you haven't already got the message, I loved this book. It was pure escapism and an utter pleasure to read. I am delighted that this is just the first book in the series and can't wait to read on. Highly recommended to anyone who likes a good story, and hey, so what if it's supposed to be for children?!!
The book is available from play.com for £3.99. Published by Scholastic (UK), it has 224 pages. ISBN: 9780439943666