I tweeted Jonathan Stroud yesterday to tell him that I would be doing my usual over-the-top fawning review of his latest Lockwood book, THE CREEPING SHADOW. I may have spoken of my love for this series before…but there’s one thing I have to praise right at the start of this review and it’s got nothing to do with Jonathan’s sparking prose:
Thank you Random House for putting Lucy Carlyle, the series central character, on the cover of this book!
There. I won’t go on about it any more. (But perhaps you’d like to re-jacket books 2 and 3 to correct previous mistakes? ;-))
On to the story. Lucy, having left the Lockwood agency at the end of book 3 (no spoilers here as to why!) has gone freelance and is being pretty flipping successful about it, thank you very much. Her superior Talent as a Listener means she’s hot property when it comes to ghost-hunting, and she’s not short of work. The only problem she faces is having to work with incompetent agency teams, and of course she finds herself missing her old agency – just because they were really good at what they did, you understand. Not because she misses any of them as people. Especially not Lockwood. Definitely not him.
But circumstances bring them together again, of course, and it’s doing a job for Penelope Fittes, head of the enormous and powerful Fittes agency, that’s the catalyst for this. And when a boy turns up begging for help for his ghost-afflicted village, this sets off a further chain of events involving the Rotwell Agency (Fittes’ biggest rival) and a black market in ghosts themselves.
Considering this book is 529 pages long, I whipped through it in a very short number of days, neglecting my own writing duties in the process (er, sorry, publishers. I’m back at work now, I promise!). The writing style is as accessible as ever, containing frequent moments that made me snort out loud, such as this description of a young incompetent agent:
Seen at a distance, in a soft light, with his back turned, Ted was tolerable; closer inspection was invariably disappointing. He was a gangly, sad-eyed youth, long in all the wrong places, with a permanently semi-open mouth hanging above a scrawny neck. Somehow he always gave the impression of having just swallowed his chin.
I think I shall hire Mr Stroud to write all my character descriptions for me in the future. Not that the book is in essence a comic one. This is a rather lovely, delicately profound extract from later on:
The plot is gripping, but what makes this book sing, as with all the others, is the characterisation. Lucy Carlyle is hands-down the strongest female protagonist I’ve come across in a long time. Conservative, stereotypical ideas of what makes a ‘girl’ simply don’t apply here – Lucy herself would stare in bafflement and brush them away. She hardly ever looks in a mirror (or takes a shower); she dresses for her job and for comfort, never for someone else’s approval. Her bedroom is untidy because she doesn’t have time to make it look nice (a conversation about her room after a break-in had me sniggering with laughter), she’s very rarely intimidated by man or woman (or ghost); and most importantly, she’s really, really good at her job.
Not to say that Lucy doesn’t have flaws. She’s a beautifully unreliable narrator when it comes to talking about her own emotions, particularly in relation to the three agents of Lockwood & Co: George, Holly (her nemesis from book 3) and Anthony Lockwood himself. Readers know perfectly well that Lockwood and Lucy have the hots for each other, but the kind of business they’re in, and their own internal demons, create a perpetual tension which really, from an artistic point of view, should never be broken. Artistic, shmartistic. I just want to see them end up in each other’s arms. My lips are sealed as to whether this actually happens in The Creeping Shadow… Rather sweetly, Lucy and Holly’s relationship changes and develops in this book too. This pleased me. And there’s a surprising return from an old rival which works in very well indeed.
The funniest interactions are almost always between Lucy and her Talking Skull in a jar, which suggests at one point that the two of them should set up in business together: Skull & Carlyle – another moment that made me snort with laughter. But the scary moments are proper cover-your-eyes terrifying too: some of the ghosts the characters come up against in this story are bigger (literally) and more dangerous than ever faced before. And we also get a glimpse of what might be on the Other Side – which leaves this reader speculating on the very cause of the Problem all those years ago and how it might be eradicated once and for all…
Though I hope it isn’t, because that would mean the end of Lockwood & Co, and that would make me very sad indeed.
Lockwood & Co: The Creeping Shadow, a brilliant grab-you-by-the-lungs comic horror, is published on 15th September by Penguin Random House, and predictably, I am now counting down the days until the next one in the series.