Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Screaming Staircase: A Review of the 1st Book of Lockwood & Co.

"When I write something that would have made me laugh as a ten-year-old, or would have scared me or would have excited me, I know I'm onto something."

Jonathan Stroud

One of my favourite children and young adult writers working today is Jonathan Stroud who gave life to what is possibly the funniest djinni ever birthed in fiction (sorry, Robin Williams). This is not the first time I have heaped love onto the Bartimaeus sequence of books and if you haven't read them - well, what are you waiting for?

While the titular indentured djinni is certainly the most memorable element of the Bartimaeus books, what really sold the original trilogy is Stroud's vision of a dystopian London run by scheming magician-politicians who enslave spirits and tyrannises non-magic commoners. Bartimaeus' London is simultaneously familiar yet coloured in every way imaginable by its magocratic upper class. There were high end shops in Piccadilly that supply sorcerous artifacts to London's elites. The British Museum contains magical antiques (stolen from foreign cultures, much like the real British Museum) and the mummified remains of Bartimaeus' former employers. Tombs of Britain's most famous sons and daughters in Westminster Abbey are cursed and guarded by powerful spirits to discourage looters. Stroud's immense talent at world-building - or world-tweaking, really - also permeates every pen-stroke in The Screaming Staircase where he introduces us to yet another vision of London slightly askew.

The Screaming Staircase US Cover
If there's something strange / In your neighborhood / Who ya gonna call?

Lockwood & Co. is one of Britain's many enterprising agencies that had sprung up in the wake of the Problem - which is a typically English way of understating an epidemic of ghosts and hauntings spreading all across the British Isles. Suddenly, the spirits of the dead refuse to stay dead, and some categories of these spooks can hurt or even kill the living, either directly or otherwise. Employing children and teenagers with the psychic ability to sense ghosts, these agencies provide the increasingly valuable service of dealing with hauntings to the public. Stroud then layered this basic premise with commonsensical extensions of the concept by also introducing us to the corporate rivalry between these agencies, governmental offices which regulate them and perform research into psychic phenomena, and the economical microverse that revolves around ghostbusting like the iron and silver industries, lavender horticulturists and purveyors of good tea bags (preferentially by the Pitkin Brothers of Bond Street). If anything, Stroud had gotten much better at reimagining London since Bartimaeus.

The Screaming Staircase is narrated by Lucy Carlyle, a young agent of exceptional talent who joined Lockwood & Co., an agency operating completely without adult supervision. Anthony Lockwood runs it, in Sherlockian fashion, from his residence at Number 35, Portland Street and through the course of The Screaming Staircase, proved to be an able understudy of the Baker Street sleuth. Anthony Lockwood intends to elevate Lockwood & Co. to be the number one agency in London and isn't above endangering his associates to achieve it. His deputy, George Cubbins, provides most of the comic relief in the book and is best described as the overweight, flatulent, male slob equivalent of Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter books and much like her, he approaches every problem by reading and researching the hell out of it.

Reminiscent of the taxonomy of summonable spirits in the Bartimaeus books, Lockwood & Co. categorises ghosts into Type Ones to Threes, in an order of increasing intelligence, autonomy and malevolence. Within those Types are various species of spirits ranging from Cold Maidens to Poltergeists to Phantasms, and they are grouped according to their behaviour and abilities. Unlike the ghosts in Potterverse, the Visitors (as they are euphemistically called) imagined by Stroud are of the horror film variety: creepy, mindless and often violently murderous. Stroud clearly intends to scare his readers with them.

The Screaming Staircase UK Cover

Like the Bartimaeus Sequence, The Screaming Staircase is a breezy read - I finished it in a day and found myself hungering for the sequel. I could tell that Stroud already had the mytharc of the series down pat, and the grand  architecture of it loomed ominously over the events of the first book. What is the Problem and what is causing it? I NEED TO KNOW! I guess I'll just have to wait for next year for the provisionally titled second book, The Whispering Skull. to be published. If George R. R. Martin manages to deliver The Winds of Winter next year as well, it would make 2014 a really good year indeed.

I recommend The Screaming Staircase to just about anyone at all. It doesn't matter who you are, how old you are or that you don't even necessarily enjoy reading for leisure at all. Stroud always know how to show everyone an enchantingly good time.

Definitely not on Jonathan Stroud's payroll,
k0k s3n w4i

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