Sally is sixteen and uncommonly pretty. Her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art and music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.
When her dear father is drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Sally is left to fend for herself, an orphan and alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Though she doesn’t know it, Sally is already in terrible danger. Soon the mystery and the danger will deepen – and at the rotten heart of it all lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke…(This is an enjoyable, quick read; 200 pages of large print, with a simple, yet profound style, and a fluid story. Avid readers could probably top this in one sitting, and it wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a couple of hours, either. The mystery is interesting, the characters are fun, and the Victorian environment is well-crafted. Pullman’s standard writing prowess, highlights the darker tones in a way that remains accessible and compatible with the lighter content.
Pullman, as usual, employs excellent world building skills to depict a dark, mysterious London. His use of description creates a winding adventure through the city streets, introducing a host of characters well suited to their setting. The female protagonist is decent, sometimes over-played, but strong and weak in the right scenarios. Most of the side-characters are well developed, but there are a few throw-away appearances from one-time characters with little to no steak in the plot. I really enjoyed the villains; they have an Esma and Kronk vibe to them, and they bring a dark comedy to the novel. They’re not the typical antagonist types, and they work well against each-other.
The mystery is over-complicated, rather than complex. As I mentioned before, it involves a lot of characters, who while distinguishable, are only in the story for a scene or two. It takes some attention to keep up with whose where with whom. The climax and subsequent ending are overly-drawn-out, and involves a subplot that could have been easily removed. There are a couple of action scenes which take place off-scene… which is annoying, because in one incidence, it’s obvious this is done to avoid revealing a plot twist too soon. This could have been done with skilful writing, which Pullman is more than capable of. I would’ve liked to have witnessed his attempt. Also, in some incidences, solutions to problems happen very conveniently – characters can suddenly climb walls, for example.
I found this to be a likeable, easy read, good for tired minds before bed. It’s not the epic narrative type Pullman is famous for, but it’s not supposed to be. A good mystery, with a great setting.