by Philip Pullman
Sally Lockhart’s father dies in what seems to be simply an unfortunate accident; the ship on which he was sailing sinks, killing all on board. Sally accepts the accident for what it is until she receives a mysterious message that reads: Salli beware of the Seven Blessings/Marchbanks will help/Chattum/Bware darling. Sally doesn’t know what to make of the note but is determined to figure out the puzzle, especially if it is in any way connected with her father’s death. She begins at the logical beginning point, her father’s business, Lockhart and Selby Shipping Agents, and follows the clues as they begin to unfold. Along the way Sally meets a colorful cast of characters that help her on her quest. First is Jim, a young errand boy that works for her father’s firm and who is obsessed with penny dreadfuls. Sally also befriends a photographer/artist by the name of Frederick Garland and his sister, Rosa, an actress. Frederick and Rosa have been disowned by their families because of their chosen professions. In many ways Sally can relate, since all she is very good at is numbers, not something ladies normally know anything about, and has none of the proper education for a young Victorian lady, which makes her something of an outcast within society. There is also Trembler, the reformed pickpocket who works for Fred and Rosa; Rev. Nicholas Bedwell, a man of the cloth who is also a fantastic boxer; and Adelaide, the poor, child maid to the evil Mrs. Holland.
What was good: 1. This line from the first page – “Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.” How can a line like that not draw you in? 2. Mrs. Holland. She was the epitome of evil. She gave me the chills that’s how evil she was, though the thought of her disgusting, second-hand, ill-fitting dentures also gave me the chills. Blech. 3. How Pullman introduced the other major players in the mystery. Readers are allowed to know a bit about them and follow some of their actions before Sally knows of their existence but their parts in the mystery still remain ambiguous. 4. The underlying message about the oppression of women during the Victorian era as well as other stereotypes, such as the ones Rosa faces as an actress. Sally is interested in what would be considered “male” pursuits and therefore cannot find “appropriate” employment to free herself from her nasty Aunt Caroline. Also, she has money from her father’s inheritance but is not really in control of it, her lawyer is, because of her gender.
What was ok: 1. There were so many characters sometimes I had trouble keeping track. Maybe this is my feeble brain. 2. While I didn’t dislike Sally, I liked several of the other characters more. Sally was a bit dull, at least for me, especially when compared to the large cast of eccentric characters around her. Maybe that’s how she was supposed to be? I’m still interested to know what happens to her in the future.
What’s next: The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, and The Tin Princess (all of these, as well as The Ruby in the Smoke, have been rereleased recently with what I think are cool covers). I’m excited to read more about Sally Lockhart and her group of friends. Also, check out what Philip Pullman has to say about the series and the book.
Read-a-like: The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding. Diamond takes place about 80 years before The Ruby in the Smoke, but both are mysteries with unconventional heroines set in historic London.