A great opening, literally, as Ananka, looking from her bedroom window in New York sees a girl climb out from a hole in the ground, give her a queenly wave and then disappear. Ananka hurries out and grabbing an old dusty book before workmen come to fill in the hole she is hooked and so are we just a couple of pages in. Life will never be the same again. The book gives the first clues to the underground world of the Shadow City, deep beneath the streets of New York, created and used by those who don’t want to be found or seen. The notion of a shadow city is enticing in itself but it is the character of Kiki Strike (the girl seen climbing from the hole), which gives the book its style and energy. Just who is she? Ananka is recruited by Kiki to be part of a team of teenage girls who all have special skills – engineering and electronics, chemistry and explosives, forgery and lock picking and disguise. Recruiting them as wayward girl scouts is just part of a nicely knowing humour and style along with their team name of The Irregulars. The nod to Sherlock Holmes is part of a range of reminders of literary heroes, including Nancy Drew, The Famous Five and Harriet the Spy metamorphosing through Artemis Fowl, Alex Rider and James Bond. Part of the pleasure here is the move from the child to the adult world, from the tame to the really dangerous (mimicked by the references and the writing which also ranges between the high literary and straight melodrama).
The excitement takes in the investigation of the shadow city, skeletons, savage rats, treasure, a bank robbery, smuggling and counterfeiting, kidnappings, an explosion and political and royal intrigue. Embedded at the end of sections is helpful and sometimes witty advice on how to prepare for such things as adventure, snakebites and frostbite, how to be a master of disguise, how to make the right impression and ‘How to kick some butt’. This is the stuff of dreams but also a guide to self-reliance and making it happen. It’s a teenage reader’s paradise, particularly for girls, who are given a witty and intelligent mix of the real and imagined and the promise of a life less ordinary. Kirsten Miller has created something special which is terrific fun and will, I suspect, spawn an industry.