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The Ruby In The Smoke (1988)

The Ruby in the Smoke (1988)

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3.99 of 5 Votes: 5
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0394895894 (ISBN13: 9780394895895)
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About book The Ruby In The Smoke (1988)

If I had to name a children's/teen's author of the past twenty years most likely to be remembered over the next few centuries, it would have to be J.K. Rowling - it's hard to ignore an author that rewrites an entire culture. If we're talking runners-up, though, it's Philip Pullman hands down. Not only did he write one of the most exquisitely crafted and original fantasy trilogies ever in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, he also has written exquisitely crafted and original novels pretty much everywhere else. Don't believe me? Check out his Wikipedia bibliography. Despite the incredible variety of his work, from modern-day fairy tales to plays to comics to a kids' activity book titled Using the Oxford Junior Dictionary, he's special in that he never loses his quirky, playful, and eloquent voice - though perhaps it was strained in that last title. Actually, why don't I quit the uber-reviewer jargon and justification and cut to the chase: I am a proud Philip Pullman fangrrl. I'm working on the T-shirts.That's why I'm kind of astonished that I made it through this many years of fandom (eight and counting) without picking up his second most well known series, the Sally Lockhart trilogy - of which The Ruby in the Smoke is the first installment. Unlike 95.1% of the time (very scientific statistic there), I didn't have the excuse that I was broke and couldn't get a copy, because my parents were nice enough to stick it in my Santa stocking the Christmas I was nine years old. I seriously have no idea how a book by an author I love manages to kick around my bookshelves for almost seven years without being read or lost or both, but this one managed it, and in hindsight maybe that's not terrible. While this book wasn't quite on par with Lyra and Will and company, I still have a whole new set of characters to fall in love with.First of all, Sally is a [email protected]$$ - capable, smart, and no-nonsense - but she's also not perfect. She gets in over her head, is bossy, definitely not great with kids, and sometimes she gets downright freaked - just like a real sixteen-year-old. (A side note for fellow Doctor Who fans, Billie Piper got the role in a 2007 TV movie adaptation.) Rosa and Frederick are delightfully boho-ditzy-artist types, while the ensemble is sinister and entertaining by turns. The setting of grimy, pea-soup-foggy London is so vivid it's almost a character in and of itself, full of opium dens and seedy alleyways and big-eyed orphans. If you're not already a convert to the steampunk/Victorian scene it might make for heavy going, but for addicts like me it's a heady thing.The thing I loved the most about it is the sensation that not one word is wasted - it's a short, small read, perfect purse-size. Pullman is a master at sucking you in without draining you, something I'm only truly starting to appreciate three weeks into spring semester. After school and homework I'm exhausted and cranky, and all I want is a book that will entertain me and distract me from that hideously difficult Comp II assignment that's due tomorrow, while also being well-written enough that the literary snob in me doesn't fall into a saccharine coma. The Ruby in the Smoke fits that bill perfectly, and I can't wait to pick up the sequels. Philip Pullman, you're still my hero!

Hold your horses, everyone, the twenty-something nostalgia has set in. I’m noticing a couple of good, classic books for youngsters working their way back under my fictional radar in the last few months. I read Ruby in the Smoke when I was about twelve or thirteen, probably lured by the promise of Victorians, intrigue and lady-heroes who are good at accountancy. (I was that kind of child. My private games tended to involve a pencil and paper and the question “How would I run this as a self-supporting enterprise?”) When lately it occurred to me that a story idea I’ve been playing with very much harks back to this, I thought I’d pick up a second-hand copy and see if I liked it as much as I remembered.This is a book for my hypothetical future daughter, for a start. Sally Lockhart is a fabulous heroine. She’s independent and can look out for herself, but she is not particularly streetwise or rebellious or ‘spunky’, and that’s okay. She’s got business acumen and staying power but she believes the best of people and makes a quiet virtue of treating them well. She’s not got weird-coloured hair or special skills, she’s neither exceptionally well-provided for nor rags-and-scraps poor, she’s not a chosen one in any way. She doesn’t sound like a YA heroine, or at least not the ones I’ve read. She sounds, in my head, a bit like younger me. Naturally I think she’s marvellous and I want my hypothetical future daughter to understand that good book-keeping and cheerfully volunteering to help with things are also character traits that can go with being a hero. Also that if you are going to smoke things, there is a clever way to do it and there is a not-clever way to do it.The main villain is genuinely creepy, and gets through dim-witted sidekicks at an alarming rate. She made a better villain before her reasons were explained – why are they so often so disappointing? Is it just that when we know a villain’s reasons for acting, they cease to be part of that ominous dark cloud of mystery in our imaginations? – but if I were Philip Pullman, I would have saved the final reveal (in the cab) for a different book. Or at least strung it out a bit. It was a little anticlimactic. Another thirty pages to build it up into something I cared about a little more, and this might have got bumped up another star.I just like anonymous notes and questing and housebreaking in search of mysterious papers and Baker Street Irregulars and people dropping dead in solicitors’ offices. I like sixteen year olds who know how to clean a pistol and also to negotiate contracts. I like scruffy photographers who wouldn’t get away with being such a low-key sort-of-vaguely love interest if this had been written in 2013, not 1987. I like pirates and Victorian-melodrama-shadowy-villainous-foreigners. This book did not knock me for six. But I enjoyed the hell out of it, and after some of the other stuff I’ve been reading of late, it is nice to dive straight back into the middle of my comfort zone and romp around for a bit.

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I liked these more the first time I read them, but they stood up fairly well to rereading. As The Ruby in the Smoke starts, 16-year-old Sally Lockhart has just lost her father, a businessman who drowned when his ship went down, and is trying to figure out the meaning of his last message to her; the second and third books follow her further suspenseful adventures. The setting is well-done, and the characters, especially practical, brave Sally, are memorable. The one thing I didn't like was Pullman's choice of narrator; it's omni, but apparently looking back at the story from a much later time, and often struck me as patronizing in tone: "If [Mr. Brown's accent:] belonged anywhere, it belonged to the future: a hundred years from then, voices like Mr. Brown's would be common, though Mr. Windlesham could hardly be expected to know that." Every time there was a bit like this, it pulled me right out of the narrative.

I'm a big fan of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, so I thought I would give this a try. Heck, I even liked the Golden Compass movie (two words--Daniel Craig). This is what librarians call "young adult" literature i.e. "for teenagers." As such, I find it a bit disturbing. I'm a far cry from a book-burning censor but this heroine is not my idea of a role model. Set in Victorian London, Sally Lockhart is an orphan (of course)who falls in with a Dickensian cast of characters to solve her father's murder. She packs a pistol and dabbles with opium, but has to get a man to purchase them for her. It doesn't even occur to her to try to solve the riddle...she's too busy embarking on a career as an accountant! She's also rather too quick to tell all her secrets to everyone she meets. And pretty much everyone ends up conveniently dead. Oh, dear. Where is Nancy Drew when we need her? Pullman should stick to insulting religion.

My first (!) Philip Pullman - and I loved it. The only reason it didn't get 5 stars is because of a niggle I had with part of the way it was resolved. I can't say more without giving too much away.I picked this up from the charity shop last week after someone somewhere online recommended it to me, and got round to reading it really quickly - because I'm on nights and YA is perfect for nights. I'm so glad I did because it was great. It didn't take me long to read - just a train journey and a few minutes in bed before I went to sleep, but it was nearly perfectly formed for all that. I already have the next one on my to buy list.
—Verity W

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