A jaunt into YA (or younger?) – The Ruby in the Smoke

The Ruby in the Smoke (first in the Sally Lockhart series)

Philip Pullman (1985)

ISBN: 9780439957403

I have only recently dipped my toes into Young Adult literature (The Book Thief – which I loved; Twilight – which I didn’t)  but when searching for a local book club, a came across a branch group of Forever YA. I was delighted to discover that their next book was by Philip Pullman. I have actually heard of this YA author and I know the His Dark Materials trilogy has a big following. This was not that, however.

The Ruby in the Smoke, set in Victorian London, centres around a 16-year-old girl, Sally Lockhart (obviously), whose father dies in suspicious circumstances at the beginning of the book. Sally tries to learn the details surrounding her father’s death and becomes embroiled in a dramatic (and actually quite complicated) story of priceless gems, opium, pirates, and riddles. The story is set both in Dickensian-style London and the exotic Far East.

While it sounds interesting, this book wasn’t for me. This book seemed aimed at a younger audience compared to the other YA fiction I have read. I’m not sure why I think that, after all, as I mentioned above, the plot is fairly complicated, the language is not overly simplified, and all the characters are aged 16+. The only thing I can come up to explain it is that the characters themselves seem almost caricatures. Every person in this book is either good or bad, with very little in between. Sally, who is supposed to be a 16-year-old, should be strung-out on hormones, and yet seems younger than that and relatively tame. I couldn’t identify with any of these characters (which I know is not a pre-requisite for enjoying a book) and ultimately didn’t feel I knew enough about them to be interested in the events happening to them. Even at only 200 pages long, this book was a slog.

The most interesting part of the book for me, was actually the opening page, which listed ‘Certain Items of Historical Interest’ for the year in which the book is set (1872). There were 5 fascinating snippets of information, my favourite of which was the story of the Mary Celeste. For those that don’t know the story, this ship was sailing between New York and Genoa with a 14 man crew plus the captain and his family on board. The British come across her drifting in the middle of the Atlantic ocean only to find no sign of the crew, or evidence of violence or mishap, and plenty of supplies on board. What happened to them remains a mystery to this day. I can’t help but smile at the mention of this story because, as a child, my father used to state (with an exasperated sigh) that our house looked like the Mary Celeste as he was arriving home from work in the evenings – the lights on in all the rooms, and yet all of us huddled out of sight in the back kitchen.

The book club meeting was last Wednesday and I was nervous to hear the others thoughts. I was worried that my dislike for this book might suggest that the genre as a whole wasn’t right for me. I was therefore relieved to discover that the rest of the group had a very similar reaction to the book. This book is the first in the Sally Lockhart series, and we all agreed that we would be unlikely to read any of the others.

1 out of 5 stars


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